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Opinion: Academic doping – can drugs make you smarter?

Can drugs improve your attention, concentration, and reduce your need for sleep…

Image: grekoff via shutterstock

WHILE THE BIGGEST doping scandal of the 21st century comfortably rests on two wheels, there is a gradual awareness that lots of people out there are interested in enhancing themselves. They would like to be smarter, more self-confident, better looking, feel sexier, and run faster.

The growth in the market for so-called human enhancement agents such as neuro-enhancers and anabolic steroids has been driven by a perfect marriage of manufacturers (big pharma), distributors (doctors and pharmacists) and a new generation obsessed with vanity and the defiance of age. As in other areas of substance use, we are witnessing the migration of prescription medications with tight therapeutic indications to high school kids and office executives keen to be on top of their game to get that grade or bonus.

And if you can find the right doctor with a prescription pad and a flexible diagnostic mindset or a website and a credit card, accessing many of these drugs is not hard. Methylphenidate, used for the treatment of ADD/ADHD, and Modafinil, used for the treatment of the chronic sleep disorder (narcolepsy), are the most researched active agents used for cognitive enhancement in healthy individuals. But there are others, developed to treat the cognitive decline associated with dementia or developed on the basis of a theoretical understanding of the complex cognitive processes that underlie learning and memory.

So can drugs make you smarter? Probably not. Appealing as Limitless and Lucy are – remember, they are just movies. Can drugs improve your attention, concentration, some aspects of memory and reduce your need for sleep? Yes. And that can mean being able to study for longer without the need for sleep. Which might for some translate into improved performance at work or during exam preparation. So these drugs do not make you cleverer – you still have to work, but they might give you an edge. Saying that amphetamines can also seriously impair your exam performance promoting chaotic thinking, repetitive writing, and catastrophic implosions.

To date, most studies have focused on the prevalence of use among students and it might be higher than we suspect. A British student paper (The Tab) survey in 2013 reported that one in five students had taken Modafanil in the months leading up exams with similar rates having been reported in the US. Other countries are more cautious with a Swiss study reporting the use of cognitive enhancers by one in seven students.

Exactly what constitutes a ‘cognitive enhancers’ is still under debate, which makes such cross cultural comparisons difficult. The other area that these studies have focused is the nature of the side-effects that are experienced by users. And these are myriad but predictable given the stimulant like properties of the drugs. From headache, anxiety and insomnia to aggression and cardiovascular problems, trying to be extra smart may come at a cost.

So this year, GDS teamed up with some European experts including Larissa Maier to undertake the biggest survey of cognitive enhancers ever conducted to define exactly who is taking what and why.

Ours will be the first study to use a standardised methodology, delivered in the same way and within the same time-frame to assess not only students use of cognitive enhancers across the world but within the wider workforce. We will not just looking at core issues such as source and function but also at health worries and complications. We will also place the use of these drugs within the broader connect of other lifestyle behaviours including the use of alcohol and other drugs.

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Our findings will be shared, as usual, exclusively though our media partners to inform consumers and health professionals alike on practical issues related to the use of putatively cognitive enhancing drugs. We hope to find out just how effective these drugs are perceived to be by users at delivering in the real world and what if any other benefits they may offer to consumers. Of course there are many other ways of improving cognitive function like diet, exercise, rest, enough sleep, cognitive training and a good study schedule. And just in case you were not aware coffee (well caffeine) is a pretty good cognitive enhancer – it keeps you awake and can improve memory function. Just make sure its good coffee or a healthy source of caffeine.

So if you have dabbled with drugs to help you study harder or keep your work deadlines at bay and would like to add your experiences to thousands of other people please take the time to take part in GDS2015 launching November 15th at

Dr Adam Winstock MBBS, BSc, MSc, MRCP, MRCPsych, FAChAM, MD
Adam is the founder of Global Drug Survey and a Consultant Psychiatrist , Addiction Medicine Specialist and researcher based in London.

Larissa Maier, M.Sc.
PhD student at the University of Zurich, Switzerland
Research assistant at the Swiss Research Institute for Public Health and Addiction (ISGF)GDS expert academic network

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About the author:

Adam Winstock and Larissa Maier

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