ScienceSkepticism

“Smart Drugs”: a smart decision?

You’ve probably heard of students using so-called “smart drugs”, like the common ADHD treatments Adderall and Ritalin, most likely to help them focus and stay awake when cramming or to give them a mental edge on the day of an exam.

These drugs are supposed to act as cognitive enhancers, i.e. boosts to your memory, concentration and/or general intelligence; sounds pretty neat, especially for someone like me who’s always being given demanding college work but totally sucks at actually getting anything done (it took me about a week just to get this post written up, for example).

However, many commonly used “smart drugs” have been flagged as dangerous or ineffective. I’m going to try to provide a decent picture of the benefits and risks attached to using them.

Some smart drugs make people feel highly focused and productive – allowing them to put plenty of effort into a single mental task such as studying without getting distracted, for hours. It’s not just students who use these to get ahead; even overworked surgeons have been known to take them to prevent making lethal mistakes out of tiredness.

I’ve noticed other benefits claimed on websites such as Studycram (an exam preparation advice site that cropped up a lot when I was trying to research this topic, and seems to strongly recommend buying drugs from it), such as improving overall IQ or creativity, but I couldn’t find much solid evidence backing these up.

Not everything peddled as a cognitive enhancer is going to be effective, though. For example, the popular food supplements such as Omega-3 and Ginkgo Biloba are often claimed to improve memory, but links suggested by studies are pretty weak at best. It’s definitely worth checking if any particular drug is backed by some actual evidence if you plan to buy, since there’s an awful lot of stuff being sold under the label of “smart drugs” out there and not very much with the science behind it to deserve the name. I looked up five drugs being sold on Cramshop at random and couldn’t find any evidence of cognitive enhancement properties whatsoever.

Most of the really effective drugs require a prescription, as they’re easily abused and have a whole bunch of nasty dangers attatched. But would the awesome-sounding benefits of these things be outweighed by any health risks? Well, you can’t really generalize about cognitive enhancers in this way because there are so many different varieties, but I’ll take a look at some of the most commonly used ones.

Adderall is an ADHD treatment drug made of amphetamine salts. It’s often prescribed to people with the condition in the US; you might well know somebody who takes it regularly. It’s used as a study drug because it enables you to focus and concentrate without feeling tired for hours.

Sounds handy, but some serious risks have been associated with use of the drug. Amphetamines always carry the dangers of dependency, and have been known to cause other unpleasant side effects, physical and psychological. Adderall specifically was suspected to have caused a string of sudden deaths in children, leading Canada to ban the drug for a period of time, although the conditions were unusual and a clear link couldn’t be established.

However, an FDA-commissioned study published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this month concluded that ADHD drug users weren’t at increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, or sudden death.

Still, it’s worth being very cautious with Adderall if you’re going to use it. It’s probably best to stay clear of it if you have a heart condition of any kind, and to take it only when you need it and not in heavy doses, or you could risk become addicted or suffering any of the many side effects that have been linked to amphetamine usage.

Ritalin, or Methylphenidate, is another pretty commonly prescribed ADHD/narcolepsy treatment. It’s also a stimulant, and it works by increasing the activity of your central nervous system, which keeps you alert, attentive and staves off fatigue. Like Adderall, however, it’s also been linked to heart attacks and sudden deaths in children, which sucks.

Oh, and it’s also worth pointing out that it’s not even so clear that amphetamines like Adderall or similar drugs like Ritalin always actually do boost your cognitive functions; one study even seemed to show them having a negative effect on memory for some people.

Modafinil, or Provigil, is a drug used for a range of sleep disorders, especially narcolepsy. Another stimulant, it increases concentration and memory, and people have reported feeling more motivated after using it. While it’s a controlled substance in the USA, there aren’t restrictions on its use in Britain and many students have openly admitted to using it as a study aid.

While side effects have been reported, including some really gruesome skin conditions, it sounds a bit safer than Adderall or Ritalin, seeing as no deaths have been linked to it and even reported overdoses haven’t been too harmful. However, it’s still worth being careful with it. There haven’t been any studies into long term effects, and neuroscientists have recommended avoiding taking it for off-label purposes until we know whether they’re really safe or not.

Sadly, it doesn’t seem like there are any awesome study drugs out there that boost your cognitive ability without any risk of dangerous side effects. While some of you might be willing to take the risk if you’ve got an exam approaching and you’re pretty sure you don’t already have any heart conditions, until it’s cleared up whether these have any long term dangers I think I’ll personally stick with coffee.

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Eden

Eden

Eden is an awesome 16 year old skeptic living in England whose life currently revolves around college, reading, gaming and internetting. Oh, and laying the smackdown on sexism, religion and pseudoscience wherever they rear their ugly heads.

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