Do Rx "Smart Pills" Really Make You Smarter?

By Dirk Hanson 04/05/11

Prescription pep pills like Ritalin, Adderall, and Provogil have become a favorite of over-achieving students and stock-brokers. But are cognitive enhancers safe and effective?

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"Smart Drugs": Not so smart
Photo via thinkstockphotos

In todays go-go world, everyone seems to need a little boost once in a while. Which might explain the raging popularity of a group of peppy pharmaceuticals—like Ritalin, Adderall and Modafinil—that tend to put an extra boost in your step. The amphetamine-like meds have traditionally been prescribed to patients diagnosed  with ADD, on whom they produce a conversely calming effect. But these days their most fervent fans are college kids, who pop the pills like Tic Tacs to get through marathon nights of studying (or partying), and to sharpen their concentration before important tests. (On some college campuses a single tab of Ritalin or Adderall can fetch as much as $25. Ardent afficianados even crush the pills up, and snort them like lines of cocaine.) Thanks to their reputed mind-sharpening effects, the pills have come to be known as the "smart drugs," and their energizing effects have also made them popular with a diverse group of overworked professionals, from night-shift nurses to Wall Street traders, cranky cab-dribers and even cops.  But does a pricey tab of Adderall really work better than a few strong cups of Starbucks?  The answer, actually, is yes. According to Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge University, such drugs improve “complex planning and problem-solving tasks, namely the executive functions in the front part of the brain.” In addition, she says,  “Modafinil has also been shown to improve memory functions and Ritalin has been shown to specifically improve working memory.” Sahakian claims that more than 20% of American college students have admitted to using Ritalin or Adderrall. A recent survey in Nature found that a similar percentage of students in the U.K. had used Ritalin, Modafinil, or beta-blockers in an attempt to to perk up their concentration and focus. But while the pills may help keep you up through a night of  Socrates, they won't guarantee you'll get an A on your lit test the next day. As Cambridge Professor John Harris dourly points out to the BBC News: If you’re not a genius before, you won’t be afterwards. A few pills don’t make you any brainier.”

But while a few tabs of Adderall won't turn you into the next Steve Jobs, they will no doubt give you an extra jolt while you're doing your job. But are these “neuroenhancers” really safe? Ritalin and Adderall, which are basically prescription amphetamines, have long been known to have addictive properties and have become notorious for widespread abuse. But what about the anti-narcolepsy drug Modafinil? Sold in pharmacies under the trade name  Provigil, the much-milder Modafinil has been increasingly prescriped for the treatment of ADHD and other psychiatric disorders. It had even shown early promise as a drug for the treatment of cocaine addiction. But while it lacks the amphetamine kick of its smart drug rivals, a small pilot study, performed by Dr. Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), suggests that the dopamine-enhancing drug has addictive potential as well.  As reported in Nature, some dopamine-boosting drugs have strong addictive potential, while other dopamine-boosting drugs have  unpleasant effects, making them decidedly less addictive. Modafinil falls in the former category, alas. So if you're struggling to complete a thesis or finish tomorrow's PowerPoint or just seeking a pinch of pep, the safest bet is to avoid all the "smart drugs" and stick with a few Venti double lattes. Or may we suggest a six-pack of of Mountain Dew?

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]