Smart drugs: Is it smart to use them?

| November 16, 2016
nootropics header image b
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

At colleges and universities across the country, students are heading to the library to get ready for finals. In the past, students would grab their laptops, textbooks and notes and hunker down for the night. But today there’s another item they’ll make sure to pack: study drugs. Over 30 percent of college students use a brain-boosting drug, often a prescription drug like Adderall or Ritalin but not one prescribed to them, to ensure they maximize their intelligence—or at least to ensure they pass.

Their use isn’t limited to college campuses, though. The brain boosting culture is what Donald Trump was alluding to when he proposed drug testing of himself and Hillary Clinton prior the third and final presidential debate.

0-16Brain-boosting drugs are routine in treating conditions with deficits in cognition or alertness, such as ADHD and narcolepsy. They also are used to offset cognitive deterioration in neurodegenerative conditions, like Alzheimer disease and Parkinson disease. But they also are used fairly commonly as performance enhancers or so-called ‘smart drugs’. Also called nootropics, such agents are popular among people who can afford them and are under pressure to excel in brain power. This includes engineers that write a lot of computer code, tech innovators, and college students.

By suggesting that his opponent might be using a smart drug, however, Trump tapped into one of the questions surrounding the nootropic trend, namely is it cheating when done in competitive or academic settings? Perhaps more important than the cheating question is whether the drugs are safe and non-addictive and do they even work? And if nootropics improve performance, what’s the reason? Are they actually making people smarter, or merely elevating the mood, thereby promoting concentration. The answer is exquisitely difficult to sort out from the scientific literature.

Silicon Valley, the high-tech megalopolis running from San Francisco to San Jose is the planet’s nootropic capital, especially when it comes to the drug modafinil. It’s an expensive drug usually given for narcolepsy, that typically costs users several hundred dollars per month, so you won’t find it among college students. Students and tech developers perceive that ‘smart drugs’ will make them perform better –for instance by forming memories more efficiently, or retrieving memories more easily during exams. But is there any basis for this?

Related article:  Did life begin in intense heat or cold? Maybe both

Modafinil is given increasingly to military pilots as a fatigue countermeasure during long flights, plus surgeons have been taking it too. A study in the journal Annals of Surgery found that modafinil could benefit sleep-deprived surgeons “in situations that require information processing, flexible thinking, and decision making under time pressure”, but is not likely to improve basic task performance, such as suturing wounds.

A few studies also suggest that modafinil could improve performance on mental tasks in people who are not sleep-deprived, but these need to be taken with a grain of salt. One problem with studies evaluating modafinil and other drugs that are utilized to enhance performance is that they are statistically underpowered. The physician study cited above, for instance, involved a total of just 39 subjects, 20 taking modafinil and the other 19 taking a placebo. This is typical of nootropic studies. While a few dozen subjects may be adequate to generate a statistical result, such results tend to be only slight.111434-pills-walbridge-01

When questioned, some nootropic users have remarked that any benefits come with a price. A user may work faster while on a performance enhancer, but when looking over their work they might find a lot of mistakes. Other users have reported only beneficial effects, but have said things to researchers implying that the drugs help them work by elevating their moods. This should not be surprising since amphetamines (e.g. Adderall) used to be given as depression treatment. It’s generally not considered a good idea anymore because these drugs are habit forming, but if a drug elevates your mood it’s easy to see why it could improve your productivity.

But then so does caffeine. It may not sound as exotic as modafinil, but technically, anyone who drinks a cup of coffee to focus better is a nootropic user. Unlike the other drugs, coffee is universally accepted in our society, but society evolves, and so the list of mind enhancers available in your office break room may someday expand.

David Warmflash is an astrobiologist, physician and science writer. Follow @CosmicEvolution to read what he is saying on Twitter.

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

Outbreak
Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
a a b b a f ac a

Video: Death by COVID: The projected grim toll in historical context

The latest statistics, as of July 10, show COVID-19-related deaths in U.S. are just under 1,000 per day nationally, which is ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
types of oak trees

Infographic: Power of evolution? How oak trees came to dominate North American forests

Over the course of some 56 million years, oaks, which all belong to the genus Quercus, evolved from a single undifferentiated ...
biotechnology worker x

Can GMOs rescue threatened plants and crops?

Some scientists and ecologists argue that humans are in the midst of an "extinction crisis" — the sixth wave of ...
food globe x

Are GMOs necessary to feed the world?

Experts estimate that agricultural production needs to roughly double in the coming decades. How can that be achieved? ...
eating gmo corn on the cob x

Are GMOs safe?

In 2015, 15 scientists and activists issued a statement, "No Scientific consensus on GMO safety," in the journal Environmental Sciences ...
Screen Shot at PM

Charles Benbrook: Agricultural economist and consultant for the organic industry and anti-biotechnology advocacy groups

Independent scientists rip Benbrook's co-authored commentary in New England Journal calling for reassessment of dangers of all GMO crops and herbicides ...
Screen Shot at PM

ETC Group: ‘Extreme’ biotechnology critic campaigns against synthetic biology and other forms of ‘extreme genetic engineering’

The ETC Group is an international environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Canada whose stated purpose is to monitor "the impact of emerging technologies and ...
Share via
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend