There are times when we could all benefit from boosting the performance of our brain. Just a little something to make sure we pass our finals with flying colors, deliver on that important project or be the dominant presence in the room.
As it turns out, getting that boost is easier to do than it may seem. Simply put, there are pills for that. Several drugs are proven cognitive performance enhancers. On that list are stimulants, traditionally used to manage disorders like ADHD, dementia medication, and even a substance most commonly used to heighten alertness in people inflicted with narcolepsy and in shift workers. And let’s also not forget two prescription free favorites of millions around the world: nicotine and caffeine.
Most of us, hopefully, don’t take things at face value when it comes to cognitive enhancement. Even widely trusted products like Onnit’s Alpha Brain deserve some scrutiny. It’s always smart (no pun intended) to ask questions like what works, how well does it work and through what mechanism. And there is also arguably the most critical question of all: what is the downside. We all know there always is one.
The truth is for the vast majority, the answers to these questions won’t be enough to rush to our doctors to get a prescription. Not all drugs work as well as they’re proclaimed to and those that do, give average (and temporary) effects at best. And, of course, the nature of drugs is they all come with side effects.
How We Think
Cognition is a process where multiple skills come together. For someone to “think well” (for the lack of a better term), they need motivation, focus, complex reasoning, and at least some degree of perseverance. They also need good verbal memory (remembering words), working memory (temporarily holding several items in mind at the same time) and episodic memory (deriving, from past experiences, social or physical context).
Theoretically, improving any one of the above-mentioned skills should improve your ability to perform at least one task. But in practice, research has proven time and time again that positively affecting one mental skill will usually degrade one or multiple other ones.
Smart Drug in Practice
Dementia drugs like Exelon promote better learning of motor skills in seniors. They also tend to have a positive effect on digit and symbol association. However, the cost of using such drugs is often impaired episodic and verbal memories.
Parkinson’s disease medication (like Parlodel and similar products), help with spacial memory and remembering locations, but can degrade several complex reasoning skills, especially in individuals likely to use them as smart drugs (the young and healthy).
And the ADHD drug Ritalin is indeed a proven working memory and attention booster. But the downside of taking it include heart palpitations and jitteriness, two things which may be very problematic if the task you’re working on requires precise motor skills.
There has also been little proof that improving a few mental skills in a lab environment improves performance in the real world. It often seems simply eating foods which support brain function yields similar if not better results.
What Studies Show
One interesting and fairly recent study took a look at how professional chess players perform under the influence of smart drugs, incuding caffeine, Ritalin, and modafinil (often sold as Provigil). Modafinil, a drug we haven’t yet mentioned, is a wakefulness inducing substance. It has relatively robust evidence backing up its ability to boost attention, episodic and working memory. Because of that evidence and because of how easy modafinil is to buy online without a prescription, for many, it has become the go-to smart drug.
The chess players in the study were put up against computer opponents matched to their skill levels. Any of the three drugs, and especially modafinil and Ritalin, gave them a slight but notable edge and increased their odds of winning. That edge was roughly the equivalent of players always having the opening move which, over many games in a competitive chess environment, can be a substantial advantage.
The drawback of using about 20 mg of Ritalin or 200 mg of modafinil was players became much more thoughtful in how they played. As a result, several had issues managing their time and lost their matches anyway.
Many other studies came to similar conclusions. For example, a paper from Cambridge University outlined how modafinil use by sleep-deprived doctors measurably decreased impulsive behavior. But while they became better problem solvers, it was at the cost of taking much longer to do it.
Putting aside cognitive skill tradeoffs, all the drugs mentioned so far have other adverse effects. Ritalin can increase blood pressure, results in appetite loss and often brings on insomnia. Dementia drugs tend to mess with the neurochemical acetylcholine, the results of which are headaches, dizziness, nausea and even vomiting. Modafinil also exhibits side-effects, though all things considering seems to be the least harmful choice of the bunch.
While most cognitive enhancers seem to have the ability to improve mental performance, they do so at the margins. The risk of side-effects of using such products (not to mention moral questions about fairness) is improbable to dissuade those who are truly ambitious. That said, most of us should do some serious soul-searching before going down the path of artificially boosting our mental performance.