Are Smart Drugs Smart?The film, Limitless, portrays the story of a disheveled, unmotivated writer who takes an experimental, wonder pill which allows him to boost his brain power to have laser beam focus, amazing memory, awareness, and problem-solving skills.  Meteoric career and financial success soon follow as well as a much better wardrobe and decorating style.  During the entire movie, I anxiously thought “He’s gonna run out of the stuff.  Then what?”

While a wonder drug as portrayed in the movie has yet to be discovered, drugs which enhance concentration and improve memory, called smart drugs, cognitive enhancers, or neuroenhancers, do exist today.  If a person could take a drug as depicted in the movie allowing them to access 100% of their brain, it would most likely put a person into major sensory overload, and they would not even be able to function.

Smart Drugs

The stimulants Ritalin and Adderall, medically used to treat ADHD, have long been known and used recreationally by students and others wanting to increase their attentiveness, concentration, and wakefulness.

Modafinil, a drug originally prescribed to treat narcolepsy and other sleep disorders, is becoming widely used by college students to study for exams and churn out papers. It has also become popular among shift workers like doctors, nurses, and pilots. The United States Air Force has made the drug available for pilots on long missions. It has even been used in times of combat to keep soldiers awake.

Modafinil works by increasing the brain’s dopamine levels, the same effect as cocaine and methamphetamine.  As with these illegal drugs, the body builds a tolerance to Modafinil and requires more and more to achieve the same desired effect.

Studies show that Modafinil does enhance complex planning and problem-solving skills, and other executive functions in healthy people.  Ritalin has been shown to improve working memory.  In one BBC News article, Professor John Harris, director of the Institute for Science, Ethics, and Innovation at The University of Manchester, says these drugs do give people an edge, but:

They have a similar effect to hard work and coffee. Physical exercise also has the same effect.  They are all, to an extent, cognitive enhancers. If you’re not a genius before, you won’t be afterward.”

Cosmetic Neurology

The term “cosmetic neurology” is being used to refer to the practice of medical drugs being used to boost cognition because it is seen by some as similar to cosmetic surgery. An article I read suggested that neurologists will become “quality of life consultants” tending to the needs of an aging population, parents who want to give their kids an edge, and people who want to get ahead in a fast-paced, competitive, technology-driven culture.

I can certainly see the drug companies encouraging this angle for the profits, and the general population, always looking for an easy way out, creating demand.  How would these drugs be any different than all too prevalent antidepressants, I wonder?

While recovering from a brain injury, I took Aricept and Namenda briefly, both drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s.  Namenda has also been shown to improve speech in autistic children.  I couldn’t tell an improvement in anything with either. For two days, I also took Ritalin, but it messed with my sleep terribly which I did not like at all.  Sleep is important to your brain and having had a brain injury, I take my zzzz’s very seriously.  Also, I didn’t like the idea of being dependent on any drug, I prefer natural neuroenhancers like exercise, meditation, and diet.

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  1. Debbie,

    Loved this blog. There are so many drugs out there to enhance your brain power, both new and old. I am a firm believer in saying NO to drugs. The natural power of the brain can be used by just reading about what the brain can do in such books like The Brain That Changes Itself, Limitless You and many others. Of course understanding how Neurofeedback works and trying it works without drugs. The Pharmaceutical Companies are rich enough. Just say NO to drugs. Thank you for bringing awareness to us about the Best Brain Possible.

  2. Hi Debbie, I agree 100%. Drugs lead to addiction which is kinda your fear for the hero of the Listless movie. Far better to use natural remedies / healing techniques like meditation, rest and Reiki (which I’m studying at the moment). Anyway, better sign off, it’s time for me to take my tablets 🙂 Take care, Stephen

  3. “You won’t be a genius afterwards”. I think this is the key point… there are no shortcuts for hard work and knowledge, and your brain will get less and less susceptible to the drug à la Guild Navigators in Frank Herbert’s Dune.



    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Reuben, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Wow! I checked out your blog. You have memory tips on there that are better than any drug! I do believe that tools, such as you provide, are great and never wear off and your brain will not build resistance with use. It will only get better! OK , gonna have to look up Guild Navigators. You piqued my curiosity.

  4. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Thank you for your comment. You bring out some very good points to be considered. I do think you and I are talking about two different things here. I am not talking about nootropics or neutraceuticals. It sounds like you are referring to natural supplements and functional foods used to enhance and improve cognition and memory. That actually makes a lot of sense to me.

    However, I do not think for one minute that the general population that will not even take the time to read food ingredient labels or make a healthy meal rather than hit the drive thru is going to opt for an amino acid or herbal supplement over popping a pill for a quick and easy fix.

    Thanks for the link to the article. Good info. I had never heard of hydergine and piracetam before. Deprenyl sounds like fun! The article, also, I believe is talking about nootropics and different drugs than I am referring to herein. It was written in 1996 and does not mention any of the drugs that I do. I think the definition of “smart drug” has changed and evolved somewhat according to my research. More recent pharmaceutical drugs, developed and prescribed for other medical conditions, are being used and referred to as smart drugs.

  5. Hi Debbie,
    I just saw the film Limitless too. I was thinking the same thing. If drug companies could develop a pill even close to what NZT did – they would. I don’t think it ‘s all that ethical though.

    I don’t like the idea of college students taking all these other drugs to ace their exams and write papers either. Messing with the chemicals in our brains is dangerous. There’s really no difference between being addicted to a “smart drug” and heroine if you ask me. After a while you’ll still do anything to get it. What kind of life is that?

    Thanks for making me think (I did just finish my second cup of coffee though!)

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Angela, a little coffee is actually good for your brain! Just don’t over do it. This is where people get into trouble. I like my morning cup too!

      My personal objection to smart drugs or any drug which is not absolutely medically necessary is exactly the anxiety you and I were feeling for the main character. Taking a drug to achieve certain skills is an illusory facade and an awful lot of pressure to maintain. This is not limitless, if you ask me, it is limiting.

  6. Debbie,

    Another fascinating article. I prefer a natural approach to health and medicine, but that doesn’t always work either. I believe that prescription drugs can have their proper place and be beneficial in some circumstances. So I would rather not draw any hard and fast rules.

    At the same time, I don’t at all support the profit driven medical and pharmaceutical approach to health. The scenario that you describe here of promoting smart drugs for greed and profit is consistent with the way medicine currently works now. Generally, I say no to the unnecessary use of drugs.

    I appreciate your in-depth look at these issues. You have a talent for explaining the complex in a clear way.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Thank you, Sandra. I agree with you in that, I think also, considering the unique information surrounding each instance individually is probably the best way to go. I realized this in recovering from my brain injury. By completely ruling out traditional medicine, I realized that I could have been disregarding things that could help. Turns out they did not, but it was a good lesson.

  7. It’s funny how people chase after “smart”, isn’t it?
    As if intelligence was somehow equal to wisdom.

    In the Northwest it’s considered unpatriotic not to, so I drink coffee, though not much. Green tea also, which has caffeine alongside the antioxidants. I think sleep itself is quite a clarity enhancer. Americans should take more naps, like they do elsewhere. The combo that worked best for me was time and luck. I survived enough of the hard years without falling down any wabbit holes, long enough to understand my own life more deeply, and to learn what works for me.

    (PS: 5 days meatless – no appreciable effect yet but I don’t miss it, and am happier to have made the decision.)

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      You bring out a very good point. Wisdom is definitely not the same thing as intelligence and cannot be improved, even temporarily I believe, with any drug. So no matter how good someone is at soduku or scrabble, this may or may not translate into wisdom.

      This brings me a sense of comfort and relaxation. It is almost as if it stops it from being a race or competition and there is no point in chasing after it as you say.

      I am with you on the naps. I am a big proponent of just curling up for a few minutes and recharging the brain. Research is showing it really does help in cognition and attention. Another natural neuroenhancer.

      I unconsciously ate a turkey sandwich at a cafe Friday. (It did have avocado and cream cheese and was very yummy. So, at least it wasn’t just any, old turkey sandwich.) I did think of you and how I was breaking my streak! Good for you!

  8. Debbie,

    I agree. Drugs are not the long-term solution. They have too many side effects. There are simple mechanical techniques to improve brain function. getting rid of stress and exercise are two other great ways to improve. Sleep also does wonders as well as water. Keep up the great work.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Tony, you are so right. There are numerous natural, lifestyle alternatives to try first and they will improve many other things as well.

  9. Great post. I thought the same thing when I saw the movie. Smart drugs are simply becoming a part of modern business and academic cultures. Adderall and Ritalin are the standards, and Modafinil seems to be getting talked about more and more. The search for Smart Drugs has become so popular that they are now making an over the counter supplements that are being called Adderall Alternatives. Though personally, I am still holding out for some NZT.

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