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 ‘smart drugs’ or ‘pharmacological cognitive enhancement substances’, as scientists call them.
However, studies suggest people from many different walks of life use them.
A poll published in the journal Nature revealed 20 per cent of readers had taken smart drugs – and it seems their use is on the rise.
Nadira Faber, a research fellow at the University of Oxford, warns some types can actually weaken short-term memory.
Here, writing for The Conversation, she reveals the true effects of smart drugs.
A poll in the journal Nature, revealed 20 per cent of people had taken smart drugs such as Ritalin or Provigil to boost their cognitive performance
MAIN CONCERN IS FAIRNESS
Imagine 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 taking smart drugs is cheating, because it can give users a competitive edge.
In fact, even several academics have argued brain doping is unfair towards people who don’t do it.
So, if your colleague gets a better performance report than you do, is it really because of the Ritalin they take?
If they have 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 media reports often suggest.
In fact, research shows while they can help some people achieve better, they can make others perform less well than normal.
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.
It increases the concentration of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.
It is usually prescribed to people who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Indeed, this drug can have positive effects on memory performance.
However, whether 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 well benefit more from taking it than people who are ‘natural’ high performers.
In fact, the drug can even reduce the brain power of high performers, by weakening their short-term memory, for example.
Modafinil – a drug used to treat sleep disorders – works by increasing concentration of dopamine. But taking it can reduce creativity and flexibility in thinking
Modafinil, sold under names including Provigil or Alertec, is a wakefulness-promoting drug. It was developed to treat sleep disorders such as narcolepsy.
Although its effects on the brain are not fully understood yet, the drug works in part by increasing dopamine concentration.
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 as it can reduce creativity and flexibility in thinking.
Also, similar to Ritalin, 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.
Smart drugs influence the concentration of neurotransmitters in the brain – and having either too low or too high levels can actually make the brain perform worse
That’s because smart drugs influence the concentration of neurotransmitters in the brain.
Performance is highest at an optimal concentration, and having either too low and too high levels can make it worse.
If you are a poor performer, increasing your low concentration of a certain neurotransmitter with a smart drug can help you.
But if you are a high performer, you are probably close to having an optimal neurotransmitter concentration already.
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 through brain 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.
Research suggests physical exercise helps to improve memory and learning – especially if done regularly
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 physical exercise improves 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 cognitive performance with smart drugs, but it appears smart drugs are not more effective.
Some might argue smart drugs are therefore no big deal at all – and we should simply stop thinking 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 black market on the internet – despite the potential long-term side effects.
The truth is 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.