Scientists show cognitive enhancing drugs can improve chess play

March 6, 2017
Credit: Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

The first study to both show and measure the effects of cognitive-enhancing drugs such as modafinil, methylphenidate (best known under the trade name Ritalin), and caffeine, on chess play is being published in the March edition of the peer-reviewed journal European Neuropsychopharmacology. This shows significant cognitive improvements for modafinil and methylphenidate, and may have influence how these drugs are used off-label in a range of activities.

The study shows how certain drugs can alter and even improve the way in which the brain processes complex information. As applied to (and other fields), this supports the possibility pharmaceutical enhancement giving a player a competitive advantage. The World Chess Federation, FIDE, recognised this by introducing an anti-doping code in 20141.

Now a new double-blind randomised controlled trial by scientists from German and Swedish universities has shown that the cognitive enhancing drugs, modafinil, , and caffeine can improve chess play. Previous research had shown that the drugs could improve when a subject was tired or was performing below his or her optimal performance, but this is the first work to show improvement of cognitive performance even if the subject is performing at a very high level.

The team, led by Professor Klaus Lieb (University of Mainz, Germany) gave 39 male controlled doses of one of the drugs modafinil, methylphenidate, caffeine, or a placebo. They then played a series of rapid, time-limited (15 minutes) games against a chess programme (the popular Fritz 12 programme) which had been matched to the strength of each individual player. This was a 4-day "crossover" study, meaning that the player had who taken modafinil on day 1 would receive a different drug (or placebo) on each subsequent day, and so on. In total the researchers gathered data from over 3000 chess games.

"One of the strengths of this study is that the chess programme provides a reference point to measure the cognitive effect," commented Professor Lieb.

They found that all three substances tested caused the players to increase the time needed to decide on a move, meaning that more games were lost as the players ran out of time. However, when the analysis was corrected to take out games lost on time, the team found that both modafinil and methylphenidate significantly increased the players' scores, whereas caffeine showed a more modest, but not statistically significant improvement.

"We were surprised to see that players on the drugs played more slowly than normal, indicating that their thought processes seemed to be deeper," said Professor Lieb.

He continued:

"The key to this work is in understanding that players showed an improvement if under less time pressure. The results themselves would be pretty significant in chess terms. For example, both modafinil and methylphenidate gave an improvement coefficient of around 0.05. If we correct for the slowest players, then the effect would be the equivalent of moving a player from say, number 5000 in the world ranking, to number 3500 in the world ranking. In a single game, the effect is the equivalent of having the white pieces, every time, which give around a 5% better chance of winning.

These differences can be pretty significant in a competitive sport or game. But this work also allows us to put a figure on the way that the use of these drugs can affect the way we think in a range of everyday intellectual activities, such as studying for an exam."

The researchers stress that the use of these drugs as cognitive enhancers are 'off-label' uses, and may have significant side effects, especially with repeated use. As all pharmaceutical substances have risks and benefit, there is little data that compares the benefit of cognitive enhancement against any risk or side effect. They also note that this is a comparatively small study, and requires replication before firm conclusions can be drawn.

Trevor Robbins (Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge), who was once ranked in the top 20 chess players in England, commented:

"Chess involves several higher brain processes including working memory, planning, cognitive flexibility and cognitive control. Drugs such as have previously been found to enhance performance of such cognitive functions in laboratory based studies of non-sleep deprived volunteers, although sometimes at the cost of prolonging response times.

This work, one of the first to study effects on chess, shows that these performance enhancements can translate into real-world activities in this study of chess players who improved their performance, though sometimes at the cost of losing on time. ".

Professor Robbins won the Brain Prize in 2014, which is considered the most important international neuroscience prize.

Professor David Nutt (Imperial College), ex-President of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, added:

"We have known for decades that stimulants improve sustained performance through reducing fatigue effects on attention and vigilance. So these current data provide new and controlled data in chess - a test of complex function. It's likely that other stimulants could do the same so this does raise interesting issues for regulators of these activities. Clearly, more research is needed."

Explore further: Study links intelligence and chess skill

More information: Andreas G. Franke et al. Methylphenidate, modafinil, and caffeine for cognitive enhancement in chess: A double-blind, randomised controlled trial, European Neuropsychopharmacology (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.euroneuro.2017.01.006

Related Stories

Study links intelligence and chess skill

September 13, 2016
Intelligence—and not just relentless practice—plays a significant role in determining chess skill, indicates a comprehensive new study led by Michigan State University researchers.

Researchers analyze chess behavior

December 23, 2016
Chess is one of the oldest—and most popular—board games. On Christmas Eve, the classic game is given as a gift several hundred thousand times over, whether as a chess set, computer game, or chess computer. Yet what is ...

Why 'smart drugs' can make you less clever

July 22, 2016
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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

Recommended for you

Worms learn to smell danger

October 17, 2017
Worms can learn. And the ways they learn and respond to danger could lead scientists to new treatments for people with neurodegenerative diseases.

Team finds training exercise that boosts brain power

October 17, 2017
One of the two brain-training methods most scientists use in research is significantly better in improving memory and attention, Johns Hopkins University researchers found. It also results in more significant changes in brain ...

'Busybody' protein may get on your nerves, but that's a good thing

October 17, 2017
Sensory neurons regulate how we recognize pain, touch, and the movement and position of our own bodies, but the field of neuroscience is just beginning to unravel this circuitry. Now, new research from the Salk Institute ...

Mechanism explains how seizures may lead to memory loss

October 16, 2017
Although it's been clear that seizures are linked to memory loss and other cognitive deficits in patients with Alzheimer's disease, how this happens has been puzzling. In a study published in the journal Nature Medicine, ...

Study shows people find well-being more so from special places than from mementoes

October 16, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers at the University of Surrey has found that people experience a feeling of well-being when thinking about or visiting a place that holds special meaning to them. They also found that ...

fMRI scans reveal why pain tolerance goes up during female orgasm and shows brain does not turn off

October 13, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers at Rutgers University has determined why women are able to tolerate more pain during the time leading up to and during orgasm. In their paper published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, ...

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.