Is Taking “Smart Drugs” a Dumb Decision?

Is Taking “Smart Drugs” a Dumb Decision?

It may be a cliché, but it is a jungle out there. Everyone is competing for the best jobs, the most desirable schools, the highest grades, the biggest raises and they’re getting harder to come by. So utilizing anything that gives you a competitive advantage, especially when it comes to mental acuity, is a smart move, right? For example, taking “smart drugs” or other so-called cognitive enhancers to help boost focus, intelligence and creativity.

But you may want to hold off popping that pill before your next big exam or project deadline. There’s new research that indicates taking “smart drugs” may do very little or nothing to improve your performance — and could even impair it.

Cognitive Enhancement is Big Business

Just as altering the mind through the use of drugs and alcohol has been around for thousands of years, so too has searching for ways to improve cognitive function using plants, herbs and potions. Today, “nootropics”— cognitive enhancers in the form of drugs, supplements, nutraceuticals and foods — are big business and growing fast. According to the American Psychological Association, cognitive enhancement has become a billion-dollar industry.

Prescription pills that supposedly boost brainpower are some of the most popular nootropics used by students, athletes, business professionals, and anyone else looking for an edge. Some of the more popular prescription pills include Adderall and Ritalin, which are stimulants used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Another popular drug widely used “off label” to enhance cognitive function is modafinil (Provigil in the U.S.), which is FDA approved for treating narcolepsy and sleep apnea. The drug is also the subject of several studies that don’t lend much credence to the supposition that it is effective improving cognitive function.

Modafinil Study #1: Latency of Response

A randomized, double-blind study on the effects of modafinil was conducted by Dr. Ahmed Dahir Mohamed in the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia campus and published in the journal PLOS One in November of 2014. In the study, 32 participants were given 200 milligrams of modafinil, and 32 participants were given a placebo. All participants were then administered a neuropsychological task known as the Hayling Sentence Completion Test (HSCT), which requires finishing sentences quickly and accurately and is highly sensitive to prefrontal executive function.

It turned out that participants given modafinil actually had “significantly longer mean response latencies on the HSCT for both the response initiation and response inhibition” than the participants who took placebos. It also turned out participants in both groups made similar amounts of errors, indicating modafinil did not appear to boost performance any either.

Not surprisingly, this study’s findings supported the findings of a previous study conducted by Dr. Mohamed in which he tested modafinil’s effectiveness in boosting creativity.

Modafinil Study #2: Creativity

In a previous study published in September 2014 in The Journal of Creative Behaviour, Dr. Mohamed examined the effects of modafinil on “divergent and convergent thinking tasks of creativity.” It too was a randomized, double-blind study conducted using 64 participants, 32 of whom were administered modafinil and 32 of whom received a placebo pill.

Dr. Mohamed examined the ability of both sets of participants to solve problems in a creative manner. What he found was that those participants who were creative to start with were actually impaired by using the drug, while those who were not very creative to start with experienced some improvement using modafinil. His results suggest that, while taking modafinil may help those who have a deficiency in creativity, the drug is not helpful in boosting creativity — and may even hinder it — in individuals already possessing a high level of creativity.

Study #3: Chess Playing

In Germany, where an estimated one in five students has used pills to boost mental performance, Klaus Lieb, director of the clinic for psychiatry and psychotherapy at the University of Mainz, conducted a study in which he gave 40 chess players either Ritalin, modafinil, caffeine tablets, or a placebo — they didn’t know which — and then had them face off.

While Lieb did notice that the players grew more alert and quick after receiving their assigned medication, the differences between those who’d received real drugs versus placebos were surprisingly small. But the real drugs came with a myriad of side effects, which begs the question: Given the side effects of “smart drugs” versus the minimal or even negative gain from taking them, are the benefits worth the risks?

“Smart Drugs” Are Still Drugs

“While efficacy of ‘smart drugs’ is unproven,” Consumer magazine staff writer Victor Lambert wrote in a June 1991 article, “side effects associated with their use are well documented.” And that was 23 years ago, when “smart drugs” were just coming into vogue. Because some “smart drugs” increase the brain’s dopamine levels, they have potential to cause dependence and to be abused. Users can also develop tolerances to “smart drugs” over time, meaning they need to take higher and higher doses — and they may experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking these drugs.

Adderall and Ritalin are both classified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as Schedule II controlled substances, a category that includes the likes of cocaine and methamphetamine. And modafinil has been known to cause depression and even panic attacks. According to neuropychopharmacologist and former UK government chief drug advisor David Nutt in a 2014 article, he believes “students popping modafinil before an exam are more likely to have a panic attack than outperform their peers.”

Which, again, begs the question: Is the payoff worth the risks? While dealing adverse side effects may be worth it to individuals suffering from narcolepsy or ADHD or other conditions these “smart drugs” were specifically designed to treat, are they really worth it to feel a bit sharper or more alert during an exam or a big project? Especially when — according to new research — if you’re already intelligent and/or creative enough to be taking that exam or working such a project in the first place, popping a “smart” pill may actually hinder your performance.

By Sean P. Egen

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