Can 'smart drugs' really boost intelligence without side effects?

20170109080000, Rachel Seah
‘Smart drugs’ are taken to combat the lack of sleep, and increase concentration and productivity.
‘Smart drugs’ are mostly prescription stimulants that are acquired illegally to combat the lack of sleep, and increase concentration and productivity.

These include adderall and ritalin, usually prescribed for attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and modafinil - which was approved as a treatment for narcolepsy in 1998 by the FDA. The long-term effects of such drugs remain unknown.

The reported positive effects of most smart drugs on the mind are largely anecdotal, and side-effects vary depending on what drug is taken. Ritalin, for example, causes a whole host of side-effects such as nausea, stomach pains and more severely, heart problems and adderall has the risk of addiction. They are usually procured through those who have prescriptions.

Modafinil, the popular choice

Modafinil, sometimes known as the Limitless drug, has fewer side-effects compared to the above two. Available through easy-to-find websites or from dealers on university campuses, it is increasingly being used by college students in the US and UK.

In fact, a survey suggests that a fifth of students in UK universities have used the drug, and 20% of these say they swallow the pill on a daily basis.

The main attraction lies in its ability to boost the working memory – it is believed to enhance the short-term memory by as much as 10%.

“Modafinil is not a wonder drug – it doesn’t make you reach a higher limit of achievement than people who haven’t taken it. But it can massive improve your efficiency, so it’s a big boost to lazy people to force themselves to work. I don’t think anyone ever became cleverer because of modafinil, but it has allowed people to live up to their ability,” said Jack Rivlin, Tab Editor-in-chief.

The safety and effects of modafinil on the brain are complex and seems to be less clear-cut.

Long-term safety and effects are still unknown

One theory is that the drug increases blood flow to brain areas responsible for focus and learning. It might also enhance brain activity in areas that manage skills like memory, reasoning and problem-solving.

Researchers at Harvard and Oxford universities have also concluded that the drug is safe for short-term consumption, with few side effects and no addictive qualities after a comprehensive review of the drug. They also concluded that Modafinil, may enhance decision-making, problem-solving ability, and even improve creativity.

However, some report fatigue, mood swings, tunnel vision, and an increased tendency to fall ill after using it; others report splitting headaches and rashes, or a reliance on it which left them more exhausted when they did not take it.

Another study by Dr Nora Volkow and colleagues based on PET scans has suggested that higher doses (400mg) of the drug affected parts of the brain areas known to be involved in substance abuse and dependence.

There are also not enough studies on the long-term effects of Modafinil.

Dr. Peter Morgan at Yale School of Medicine advises against long-term use of modafinil as it might be similar to caffeine or nicotine, that have clear benefits from short-term use, but those benefits are erased by long-term use, and are instead replaced by deficiencies in cognitive performance.

"There's no reason to think that modafinil would be any different," he explains. MIMS

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