Brain “Steroids” – Cognitive Enhancement Drugs


RitalinStudents popping “smart” pills before exams? It’s happening with increasing frequency on both sides of the Atlantic, according to Students turn to smart drugs for exam help in The Scotsman. Students are increasingly using nootropic drugs, which include Ritalin, often prescribed for ADHD, and Donepezil, an Alzheimer’s aid.

A number of clinical studies have shown that such smart drugs can produce significant mental gains in normal, healthy subjects.

Donepezil has been found to boost the brain function of healthy people by increasing the concentration of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, boosting the power of certain electrical transmissions between brain cells.

But neuroscientists warn that the long-term effects on healthy people are difficult to predict. Over time, they might cause people to remember too much detail, cluttering the brain and making it difficult to shift attention to a new task.

Whatever the risks, the usage of these drugs as cognitive enhancers is growing. Last year, a study of 119 colleges in the U.S. disclosed that up to 25% of those responding had used ADHD medication for reasons other than treating that condition.

The area of cognitive enhancement will present an interesting challenge for drug makers and marketers. There’s no doubt that a market exists for such products. Currently, the space is dominated by prescription drugs approved for other uses and supplements that have minimal regulation. The latter group includes products like ginkgo biloba, a reputed memory enhancer; these supplements generally don’t have serious research to back up their claims, and aren’t subject to rigorous safety testing. It’s clear that if a well respected pharmaceutical firm like Pfizer or Lilly introduced a product with credible research both demonstrating cognitive benefits in healthy adults and indicating a high probability of safety when used properly, they would sell carloads.

Our society today is increasingly performance-driven. People believe that getting into the right college is critical for career success, and the admission process for elite schools has become insanely competitive. Once in college, the competition doesn’t end for those hoping to attend a top professional school – they, too, will need superb academic records and test scores. And after graduation, the competition in the business world can be intense – the ability to be a bit sharper than the next person, and perhaps work longer with less fatigue, might mean winning the promotion race. In each case, a safe cognitive enhancer would be highly sought after.

The field of neuroethics is already starting to think about the issues raised by cognitive enhancers. Michael Gazzaniga’s The Ethical Brain devoted space to evaluating the pros and cons. While in athletics the use of performance enhancing drugs is controversial and almost universally forbidden, the future of cognitive enhancers looks a bit more promising if they can be shown to be safe and effective. There’s too much momentum and potential demand for that not to be the case. Beyond pressured students and professionals, there’s an entire generation of baby boomers concerned about cognitive decline. These boomers are already experimenting with brain fitness ideas, and will be standing in line at the pharmacy if drug makers can meet their real and imagined needs.

  1. Douglas J. Phillips II says

    The marketplace for cognitive enhancers is likely to intensify in the near and immediate future- both for aging baby boomers and young students competing with their peers. Whether or not using cognitive enhancers is ethically sound is another matter altogether (similar I suppose to steroid use). One of the things I think we need to consider, however, is whether government authorities should prevent the use of such brain supplements.


  2. Beemer says

    I think its morally our responsibility as a civilization striving to advance our technological and biological evolution to seek out, and utilize anything that can improve our intelligence. I’m a very, very smart person- but I have struggled with ADHD throughout my life and, although it’s not exactly crippling, it is a significant obstacle when I am trying to accomplish a task and see that it’s finished. One of the biggest problems I’ve had because of ADHD, coupled with the fact that I am intelligent, is that I am always thinking of hundreds of different ideas incessantly. While having a lot of ideas is a great thing to have, not being able to turn it off or to concentrate on just one when I need to becomes a huge problem. Since I was prescribed Adderall, which is an amphetamine, I have been able to concentrate on the things I need to with outstanding focus and tenacity- fully utilizing my intelligence.
    But the case here is people using enhancing drugs, not necessarily when they need it. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. humanity has always enhanced and augmented their abilities to do what they couldn’t accomplish by themselves, and this has brought us the world we live in today. Using brain enhancing drugs is no different than using a calculator, or a car- it’s just another tool to help us accomplish our goals more efficiently and effectively…
    Maybe by using brain enhancing drugs we could overcome our technological, and moral adolescence as an advanced society, and propel our species to a form of evolution that will pave the way for the future.
    And personally I don’t think we should stop at just brain enhancing pharmaceuticals… I think incorporating machine and technology into our very beings would be beneficial as well- merging machine with biological agents combines the best of both worlds. Human augmentation with something like computer implants for brain memory and computer interface, or night vision eyes, or even input/output interface ports to plug ourselves into machines so we could access a global information networks and learn anything instantly or experience new worlds(like the matrix)….everything, and anything should be used.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Beemer, you might enjoy my upcoming podcast with Dr. Andrew Hill, an expert in nootropics. Search for The Brainfluence Podcast in iTunes or the player of your choice. It should air in a week or two.

  3. stu says

    there is a third group which is more sinister, its the internet con men looking to make a score form the gullible.

    I tend to err on the side of the vitamins and minerals end of nootropics…the herbal medicines as opposed to prescribed medicines.

    I suffered a brain injury and have noticed an increase in various cognitive and brain functions as well as behaviour and emotional issues.

    Obviously I am in a different position from most but its still interesting that these supplements are helping me with my issues as well as those who are interested in higher grades for example.

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