There are lots of different levels of “smart drugs”, also known as Nootropics, which are thought to improve brain function in numerous different ways. These include improvements to both short- and long-term memory, focus, learning rates and ability, planning, attention span, reasoning, decision making, concentration and problem solving. Even social skills can be improved, as human interaction and the processed behind it, fall under the general span of cognitive function. Because there are so many different brain functions that can be potentially affected, different smart drugs can have totally different effects to each other upon the user, and each carries the potential of developing a wide range of side effects.
The most well-known “smart drug” is most likely caffeine; freely available, and sold as a stimulant in drinks, mints, diet pills, tablets and foods, it has been shown to increase awareness, energy levels and performance. In some tests, it has also been shown to improve memory. The effect is only short term, and caffeine is probably more accurately described as a productivity enhancer.
Take a look at our ingredient caffeine article.
Improving Cognitive Function through Vitamins and Nutrients
There are numerous nutrients that appear to have a small influence over brain function, and so ensuring that the body is not deficient may have a small effect upon cognitive performance. It is always advisable to get nutrition from natural food sources, but these are also widely available in vitamin form. Before considering the use of smart drugs, it is best to look at dietary habits and lifestyle choices, to see if small changes could help to naturally boost your mental abilities.
The whole group of B vitamins has traditionally been associated with improved cognitive function. Studies in recent years have begun to focus upon the development of Alzheimer’s in the elderly, and any links with vitamin deficiencies, but have yet to find a clear link between supplementation and prevention of Alzheimers.
Choline has been linked with improved cognitive function, especially with verbal and visual memory. It is present naturally in high levels in eggs, meat and seafood such as shrimp, scallops and fish.
Hydration is also very important for mental function; A report on the physiological effects of dehydration noted that
Mild dehydration produces alterations in a number of important aspects of cognitive function such as concentration, alertness and short-term memory.
Whilst improving the above factors, as well as regularly taking exercise and being well rested, can improve mental function, increasing numbers of people are seeking a more significant boost to their brain power. These people are apparently turning to the use of two different drugs, Ritalin and Modafinil.
Modafinil is usually prescribed for people with sleep disorders, especially narcolepsy. When taken by users who do not have any medical condition to treat, it acts as a stimulant, helping users to stave off sleep and to increase concentration and focus. It is thought to be used increasingly by some students to give them an edge during revision.
Whilst it is not illegal to buy prescription-only drugs such as Modafinil, it is against the law to supply them, or sell it on to others. There is little hard data on how many people are turning to Modafinil, whether it be just once or regularly. However, small surveys have been run, such as one run by the BBC Newsnight and New Scientist Magazine back in 2012, which found that of the 761 people who had responded to the survey, ‘38% said they had taken cognitive-enhancing drugs.’ Whilst these surveys are not representative of the general population, or even of the student population in the UK, the number of people who are using illegal cognitive enhancing drugs is surprisingly high.
Ritalin is another drug that people seem to be using increasingly as a smart drug, rather than for its prescribed purpose of treating ADHD. Classed as a class B drug when not provided as a prescription drug, being caught in possession of the drug could lead to a five year jail sentence in the UK. However, this risk is not putting off the few who feel they need an extra mental boost to help them through exams or work.
One person who we interviewed, who wished to remain anonymous, used Ritalin occasionally whilst at university, having obtained it from a friend who was being prescribed the drug to treat his ADHD. He stated that it “just helped me to work in a more focussed way, not dissimilar to simply drinking a lot of caffeine”. He also noted that one tablet would keep him awake all night, without feeling the effects of exhaustion.
How Effective are Smart Drugs?
Whilst the title would make many people presume that these drugs would make a person smarter, by perhaps boosting their IQ. However, this is not the case. Modafinil is primarily used to increase alertness, and but also improves some aspects of working memory, making it a prime choice for students who are revising looking for an extra boost.
One reporter on Newsnight blind-tested Modafinil and a placebo, using a series of mental agility tests to establish whether Modafinil did have an effect upon memory and other cognitive functions. The results of the tests showed a clear 10% improvement in results whilst under the influence of Modafinil compared to the placebo. However, this was not a proper study, as it involved only one subject, and so the results may not be an accurate representation of the effects of Modafinil on the general populace. Similarly, Ritalin is used to help the ADHD sufferer improve their focus and attention span.
The BBC reported that Andrea Petroczi, a professor of Public Health at Kingston University said;
It’s not a magic pill. It doesn’t work without putting the work in, it helps you to put more work in.
In addition to this, improvements to cognitive abilities from the use of smart drugs are temporary and short-lived.
Potential Side effects
The potential side effects of various smart drugs are diverse. Remember that if the product is not as advertised, the possible side effects could be much worse.
The side effects of Modafinil include nausea, headaches, diarrhoea, tremors, nervousness, confusion, insomnia, palpitations and unusual behaviour. One user reported to the BBC that they had a reduced desire to socialise whilst using Modafinil.
Meanwhile, the common side effects of Ritalin include nervousness, agitation, anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, palpitations, headache, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and psychosis.
The question of whether these drugs are addictive or not has a wide variety of answers, depending upon the source. It is thought in general that the doses of Ritalin and Modafinil have a low chance of addiction, whilst some sources state that having unregulated and increased doses of Ritalin, which may occur if unaware of the strength of the drug, may lead to an increased chance of addiction.
Buying Smart Drugs
Because of the dubious legality of buying some of these smart drugs, and the clear illegality of buying others, the internet has opened up as the main source for many buyers. This is probably the most dangerous aspect of these smart drugs, as buying internationally means that it is impossible to be certain what drug will arrive at your doorstep.
Some of these products may be something else entirely; at best, the pill will be little more than chalk and sugar, whilst at the worse end of the scale, products being sold as Modafinil online have been found to contain toxic ingredients. It is impossible to tell how many “Modafinil” pills bought online are actually the product advertised. This greatly increases the chances of negative side effects, health problems, addiction and even overdose of a pill masquerading as a smart drug.
Many of the sites selling these products are shut down each year, and yet the supply never seems to stop, with new sites cropping up every day. Some sites are technically legal, as the free sale of Modafinil and other smart drugs being legal in the host country, making it even harder to shut these sites down.
These sites sell smart pills at a much lower rate than is available on the street. The Daily Mail found that pills were available for as little as 50 pence each on some websites, whilst acquiring from a person in the UK is more likely to set a person back between £2 and £5 per pill. This is because the risk of supplying these pills illegally pushes up the cost.
Our Verdict – Smart Drugs for Better Performance?
Overall, smart drugs are currently not a viable means of boosting performance at work or in education, and should not be considered as an alternative to caffeine for promoting alertness and focus.
The UK government and various regulatory bodies, including the MHRA (the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency), have stated that tackling the illegal sale and supply of medicines over the internet is a priority, and their purchase is currently illegal or dubious.
Their use as a smart drug, rather than for their intended medical purposes, has not been researched in depth, and so the long term consequences of self-medicating smart drugs is unknown. However, there may be a change in this in the coming years. Some scientists are investigating the effects of Modafinil upon shift workers with difficult and intricate jobs, such as surgeons. The use of smart drugs by soldiers has also been discussed.
Depending upon the results of research in the next few years, it may be that smart drugs will be freely available legally in the future. However, it is unlikely that Modafinil or Ritalin will be fully legalised for the use of improving cognitive function.