What do we know about Smart Drugs?

This post is also available in Dutch.

In areas such as the Tech world, taking ‘cognitive enhancers’ has become the new trend. These ‘smart’ drugs boost memory and focus, and creativity and problem-solving, but at what cost?

The idea of cognitive enhancement has been around since the 1960s: Fembots.
Image by The Bionic Wiki

What is enhanced?
To better understand how cognitive enhancers, or smart drugs, enhance cognitive function, let’s begin with what cognitive functions involve. Cognitive functions allow us to manipulate the information we take in, such as in our working memory. These cognitive functions allow us to control brain networks, like those related to motor or language processing, and they allow us to carry out behaviour that is goal-driven. Cognitive enhancers are said to therefore, enhance functions such as memory, attention, creativity and problem-solving for our day-to-day activities.

What are some ‘cognitive enhancers’?
Cognitive enhancers, sometimes also referred to as nootropics, are said to boost abilities such as memory and attention for instance. These substances commonly range from caffeine to nicotine, to herbal supplements such as ginkgo biloba. However, nowadays many students have been known to use unprescribed pharmaceuticals. Methylphenidate, or commonly known as Ritalin, is a medication used to treat ADD and ADHD (see previous blog), and is increasingly popular amongst students to temporarily boost their concentration. By taking the stimulant, students hope to enhance their studying abilities, for instance when pulling an “all-nighter” to pass an exam.

Other cognitive enhancers can also increase your creativity and flexibility to think your way around a problem, and this is said to include the controlled use of marijuana, to more experimental forms such as electrical brain stimulation. However, an increasingly popular form of self-treatment has found its way back to the psychoactive world, where extremely small or “micro-” doses of psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin (see previous blog) have become the new trend. Microdosing has become such a common practice that many users experiment even in the workplace. In places as highly regarded as Silicon Valley, many have given anecdotal evidence for the peculiar effects that take place during a ‘normal’ day at the office.

The search for more and more…
Naturally, if you are ambitious and have a healthy dose of curiosity, why wouldn’t you want to enhance your effectiveness when achieving your goals? For this reason, taking cognitive enhancers has become an unrestrained billion-dollar black market (in the US). This comes as no surprise, as competition for innovation and prestige drives otherwise healthy individuals to perfect an already ‘top of their class’ and ‘non-stop work ethic’ mentality. The problem is that their motive to experiment illegally with these prescription and psychoactive drugs, comes at a cost.

Apart from the immense amount of trouble experimenting with illegal substances can lead to, and the fact that drugs such as Ritalin are extremely addictive, there is an overwhelming lack of research on the effects of these so-called “smart” drugs on the healthy brain. The microdosing research that many base their current opinions on, is research that was shut down in the 1960’s. More clinical research must be done to better understand both the positive and negative effects of cognitive enhancers.

Written by Marpessa. Edited by Roselyn.

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