Why 'smart drugs' can make you less clever

July 22, 2016 by Nadira Faber, The Conversation

It is an open secret: while athletes dope their bodies, regular office workers dope their brains. They buy prescription drugs such as Ritalin or Provigil on the internet's flourishing black market to boost their cognitive performance.

It is hard to get reliable data on how many people take such "" or "pharmacological cognitive enhancement substances", as scientists call them. Prevalence studies and surveys suggest, though, that people from different walks of life use them, such as researchers, surgeons, and students. In an informal poll among readers of the journal Nature, 20% reported that they had taken smart drugs. And it seems that their use is on the rise.

So, if you are in a demanding and competitive job, some of your colleagues probably take smart drugs. Does this thought worry you? If so, you are not alone. Studies consistently find that people see brain doping negatively.

A main concern is fairness. Imagine that while you are going for a run to boost your mental energy, your colleague is popping Ritalin instead. While you believe in your afternoon nap to regain concentration, your office mate relies on Provigil. Unfair? The general public thinks that taking smart drugs is cheating, because it can give users a competitive edge. In fact, even several academics have argued that brain doping is unfair towards people who don't do it.

Mixed effects

So, if your colleague gets a better report than you do, is it really because of the Ritalin she takes? If your office mate has more creative ideas, is it because of Provigil? Probably not. The smart drugs currently available can boost brain performance, yet they are not as effective as glaring media reports often suggest. In fact, research shows that while they can help some people achieve better, they can actually make others perform less well than they normally would. Let's look at two prominent smart drugs, methylphenidate and modafinil, and their effects.

Methylphenidate, best-known under its brand name Ritalin, is a psychostimulant that increases the concentration of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. Methylphenidate is usually prescribed to people who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Indeed, this drug can have positive effects on memory performance. However, if methylphenidate can help with other important areas of cognitive performance, for example attention and learning, isn't clear yet. Importantly, people who normally do not perform that well benefit more from taking it than people who are "natural" high performers. Methylphenidate can even reduce the brain power of high performers, by weakening their short-term memory, for example.

Modafinil, sold under names including Provigil or Alertec, is a wakefulness-promoting drug. Although its effects on the brain are not fully understood yet, modafinil works in part by increasing dopamine concentration. It has been developed to treat sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. Taking modafinil does improve attention, but it is still unclear whether it also brings any other cognitive benefits. If it does, they are likely to be small.

But modafinil might also make you less smart: it can reduce creativity and flexibility in thinking. Also, similar to methylphenidate, modafinil boosts brain power more for people who normally show low performance. In other words, if you take modafinil you might make your performance better in one domain, but reduce it in another. And you will hardly benefit if you are a high performer anyway.

That's because smart drugs influence the concentration of neurotransmitters in the brain. Performance is highest at an optimal concentration, and both having too low and too high levels can make it worse. If you are a low performer, increasing your probably low concentration of a certain neurotransmitter with a smart drug can help you. If you are a high performer, you are probably close to having an optimal neurotransmitter concentration already and increasing it further will not improve your performance – it will make it worse. So there is an upper limit of how much can be achieved with doping. This is even true for low performers: by taking too many smart drugs, you just push your neurotransmitter level above the optimum and get reduced smartness in return.

Where does this leave us?

Instead of taking smart drugs, going for a run or taking a nap might actually be a better idea. Research shows that physical exercise improves, for instance, memory and learning, especially if done regularly. Similarly, sleep can improve brain power, even if you are not tired. It has particularly large positive effects on memory, but can also increase creativity. Even naps as short as six minutes during daytime can improve memory.

There are so far no studies that directly compare such non-pharmacological means to improve with smart drugs, but it appears that smart drugs are not more effective.

Some might argue that smart drugs are therefore no big deal at all – and that we we should simply stop thinking that it's unfair to take them. I don't think it is that simple. People still tend to overestimate the effectiveness of smart drugs, which may lead them to order such drugs from an unregulated on the internet – despite the potential long-term side effects. The truth is that we just don't know whether there are any such side effects yet.

Also, overestimating the power of smart drugs can stigmatise users and create tensions between users and non-users, for example when they work together in teams. Our task as scientists is to help people get an accurate picture of what smart drugs can do – and what they cannot.

Explore further: Fair play? How 'smart drugs' are making workplaces more competitive

Related Stories

Fair play? How 'smart drugs' are making workplaces more competitive

July 1, 2016
We live in an increasingly competitive world where we are always looking to gain an advantage over our rivals, sometimes even our own colleagues. In some cases, it can push people to extreme, unethical and illegitimate methods ...

Smart drugs pose special risks to the developing brain of young people

May 13, 2014
Over a million American students misuse prescription drugs or take illegal stimulants to increase their attention span, memory, and capacity to stay awake. Such "smart drugs" become more and more popular due to peer pressure, ...

Systematic review shows 'smart drug' modafinil does enhance cognition

August 19, 2015
The drug modafinil was developed to treat narcolepsy (excessive sleeping), but it is widely used off-licence as a 'smart drug' to promote cognitive enhancement, where qualities such as alertness and concentration are desired ...

'Smart' drugs won't make smart people smarter

November 12, 2014
It is claimed one in five students have taken the 'smart' drug Modafinil to boost their ability to study and improve their chances of exam success. But new research into the effects of Modafinil has shown that healthy students ...

Record seizure of smart drugs including one untested in humans shows growing market

November 3, 2014
People desire to enhance themselves in all sorts of ways: physically through cosmetic surgery; sexually through Viagra; and through using cognitive enhancing, or smart, drugs to perform better at school or work. In such a ...

Recommended for you

Nature or nurture? Innate social behaviors in the mouse brain

October 18, 2017
Adult male mice have a simple repertoire of innate, or instinctive, social behaviors: When encountering a female, a male mouse will try to mate with it, and when encountering another male, the mouse will attack. The animals ...

Brain activity predicts crowdfunding outcomes better than self-reports

October 18, 2017
Surveys and self-reports are a time-honored way of trying to predict consumer behavior, but they have limitations. People often give socially desirable answers or they simply don't know or remember things clearly.

Scientists may have found a cause of dyslexia

October 18, 2017
A duo of French scientists said Wednesday they may have found a physiological, and seemingly treatable, cause for dyslexia hidden in tiny light-receptor cells in the human eye.

Navigational view of the brain thanks to powerful X-rays

October 18, 2017
If brain imaging could be compared to Google Earth, neuroscientists would already have a pretty good "satellite view" of the brain, and a great "street view" of neuron details. But navigating how the brain computes is arguably ...

'Wasabi receptor' for pain discovered in flatworms

October 18, 2017
A Northwestern University research team has discovered how scalding heat and tissue injury activate an ancient "pain" receptor in simple animals. The findings could lead to new strategies for analgesic drug design for the ...

Changing stroke definitions is causing chaos, warns professor

October 18, 2017
Proposals to change the definitions of stroke and related conditions are causing confusion and chaos in clinical practice and research, a Monash University associate professor has warned.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.