Smart pills

Drugs are now being used that can potentially make us smarter

If you could take a drug to boost your brainpower, would you? This question, faced by Bradley Cooper’s character in the big-budget movie Limitless, is now facing students who are frantically revising for exams. Although they are nowhere near the strength of the drug shown in the film, mind-enhancing drugs are already on the pharmacy shelves, and many people are finding the promise of sharper thinking through chemistry highly seductive.

Performance-enhancing substances are nothing new. Long-haul lorry drivers and aircraft pilots are known to pop amphetamines to stay alert, and university students down energy drinks to ward off drowsiness during all-nighters. These rev up the entire nervous system but only have a temporary effect.

A new generation of cognitive enhancers can improve mental functions in a lasting way. These drugs result from the drive to develop treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions.

Three brain-boosting medications are on the market, available on prescription. Modafinil (marketed under the name Provigil) is a treatment for narcolepsy and other sleep disorders that is proving popular among healthy people who want to enhance their mental prowess.

Another is methylphenidate, better known as Ritalin, the drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The third is donepezil, prescribed for patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

None of these drugs are approved for use in healthy individuals, but a growing number of people are taking them to gain a mental edge. Modafinil, when given to adults playing games specially designed to test mental skills, has been shown to increase cognitive agility, by increasing alertness and the ability to concentrate on a task.

Students will no doubt find smart drugs tempting. Indeed, it has been found that some parents use the Ritalin prescribed to their children, and some academics take these drugs regularly to enhance their memory and concentration. Some users persuade a doctor to prescribe it; others get it illegally over the internet.

Smart drugs remain a hot topic. If a drug can improve an individual’s performance, and they don’t experience side-effects, some argue that it can’t be such a bad thing. What’s the difference between a can of caffeine-containing Red Bull and a hike from modafinil?

But where will it all stop? Ambitious parents may start giving mind-enhancing pills to their children. People go to all sorts of lengths to gain an educational advantage, and eventually success might be dependent on access to these mind-improving drugs. No major studies have been conducted on the long-term effects. Some neuroscientists fear that, over time, these memory-enhancing pills may cause people to store too much detail, cluttering the brain. Read more about smart drugs here.

Wipe away the pain

So what about the flip side: a drug to erase bad memories? It may have failed Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but neuroscientists have now discovered an amnesia drug that can dull the pain of traumatic events. The drug, propranolol, was originally used to treat high blood pressure and heart disease. Doctors noticed that patients given the drug suffered fewer signs of stress when recalling a trauma.

Scientists found that the drug can disrupt the way memories are stored. This ability could be invaluable in treating trauma victims to prevent associated stress disorders. The research has also triggered suggestions that licensing these memory-blocking drugs may lead to healthy people using them to erase memories of awkward conversations, embarrassing blunders and any feelings for that devious ex-girlfriend.

It may seem tempting to use a drug to prevent a painful experience becoming an unwanted memory. But how would that affect our development as individuals? Bad experiences help make us what we are. We learn from them. They help us avoid repeating mistakes.

And there are other uses that may make us uncomfortable. The military is interested in modafinil as a drug to maintain combat alertness. A drug such as propranolol could be used to protect soldiers from the horrors of war. That could be considered a good thing – post-traumatic stress disorder is common in soldiers. But the notion of troops being unaffected by their experiences makes many feel uneasy.

Lead image:

Saad Faruque/Flickr CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Drug Development’ in January 2008 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Neuroscience, Medicine
Drug Development
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development