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02 May 2018

Do Smart Drugs Work

Have you ever thought about taking drugs to make you smarter or help you perform better at work? Smart drugs include all compounds that are capable of enhancing cognitive function, including stimulants like caffeine and Ritalin and nootropic substances such as piracetam and modafinil. While some of these substances have been found to improve memory, motivation and creativity in scientific studies, they can be dangerous when abused or taken without a prescription.

Drinking coffee in the morning has become such a standard ritual in western society that most people don't even think of it as a drug. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant, however, and the world’s most popular psychoactive drug. Caffeine can improve your motivation and focus by increasing catecholamine signalling in the brain. L-theanine has a similar effect, with this compound present in black, green, and white teas from Camellia sinensis. So if you drink either tea or coffee, you're consuming a cognitive enhancer everyday.

While caffeine and L-theanine are the most popular cognitive enhancers, other compounds can be even more powerful. Modafinil is the most widely researched of these compounds, with this wakefulness drug approved by the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration to treat the sleep disorder narcolepsy. While this drugs beneficial effects in sleep-deprived people are well-known, modafinil has also become popular for its neuroenhancing effects. While this drug is used by some to create a competitive edge, the absence of long-term clinical data and potential side-effects should be a major concern to potential users.

According to a 2015 research review by the University of Oxford, modafinil intake was found to enhance executive function in most studies, with half of the studies also showing improvements in attention, learning and memory. What is particularly fascinating about this substance is that the longer and more complex a task was, the more consistently the drug improved cognitive function. Amphetamine drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall have also been found to enhance performance, although their effects are more modest. Because these drugs modulate important neurotransmitter systems such as dopamine and noradrenaline, unregulated use does come with significant risks.

Perhaps the most popular class of smart drugs are racetams such as piracetam and aniracentam. In fact, the term "nootropic" was originally coined to describe the effects of piracetam, which has been found to be effective in a number of studies. One study, published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, found that piracetam can improve brain function in elderly patients. Another study, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, found that piracetam improved memory in the vast majority of healthy adult volunteers.

Piracetam may work by increasing membrane fluidity in the brain, but the worrying thing is that no-one knows exactly how it functions. This illustrates the danger of taking these substances, many of which lack long-term clinical data, especially on healthy subjects. While piracetam and other smart drugs have been found to improve cognitive function in numerous studies, you should always research thoroughly and talk with your doctor before taking any psychoactive drug.  

Image source:  NOBUHIRO ASADA/Shutterstock