The promises and dangers of smart drugs: Understanding the implications of using “smart drugs” to improve performance

We explore the abuse of so called “smart drugs” taken to enhance learning abilities by people who are not prescribed. What are the risks for addiction and unwanted side-effects? See more, here.

minute read
By Harold Clifton Urschel III, M.D., M.M.A.
Chief Medical Strategist, Enterhealth

The debate over “smart drugs” has heated up again, with the topic recently re-emerging in both the academic and entertainment communities. This fall, CBS premiered the series Limitless, featuring a plot centered around a brain-enhancing drug that produces superhuman mental abilities. Additionally, following a TED Talk in Sydney this year by Nicole Vincent, associate professor of philosophy, law and neuroscience at Georgia State University, George Washington University recently hosted a debate arguing whether “College Students Should Be Allowed to Take Smart Drugs.”

What is a “smart drug”?

To understand this issue, it’s important we first examine the label “smart drugs,” one I feel can mislead people. If you have ADHD, your body has a natural neurochemical imbalance, which can be resolved with prescribed stimulants like Adderall, Ritalin, or narcolepsy drug turned smart drug, Modafinil. Without the pre-existing brain chemical imbalances these drugs treat, like ADHD or depression, they become powerful stimulants that affect your body either similarly, or exactly the same way methamphetamines does, which is terrible for your brain.

Do stimulant drugs make you “smarter”?

These drugs, like meth, also only produce the desired effect on your brain for a temporary period of time. Let me reiterate – they have a temporary effect on your brain. This does not translate to being smarter. This also means that after the rush, students abusing smart drugs will also face the same unwanted side effects we associate with abuse – fatigue, depression, irritability and lack of focus, compounding many of the issues that created the desire or perceived need to use in the first place.

Individuals that use drugs of any kind can suffer from what is called state-dependent learning. When you learn something sober and you have to recall and use that information in a sober state, then you can still do it. However, if you study sober and then take a test in a different mental state, your brain won’t work the same way as when you practiced that cognitive recall before. The same is true for studying with a performance-enhancing drug, then trying to use that information in a sober state. The brain works best when memories are formed and used in the same state of consciousness.

Are smart drugs dangerous?

There is a widely held perception that smart drugs are innocuous because they are FDA-approved and distributed via physicians, and because the goal of improving academic performance is deemed a “worthy” one. When smart drugs are misused, they boost energy and can often create feelings of euphoria, which is why academic use so often escalates into broader recreational use. One 2000 study even found 16% of college-aged students even admitted to snorting Ritalin.

One of the most damaging long-term side effects of state-dependent learning is the individual’s diminished belief in their own natural ability. Our self confidence plays so strongly into our daily performance and mental state that growing to think “I’m only smart enough when I take that pill” forces us to draw less on ourselves and more on the abused substance. It also highlights that the pill isn’t actually creating intelligence, but rather temporary bursts of improved cognitive ability.

Remember, to experience the effects of smart drugs we’re discussing here, an individual will not possess the same chemical imbalance that these drugs are prescribed to treat. This means that unless individuals have been misdiagnosed with ADHD and are able to secure smart drugs with a prescription from their physician, they also have to secure the drugs through other illegal means. This can compound the stress created by state-dependent learning in also creating the stress of supply issues at periods when greater performance is expected – where to score during finals, during mid-terms, when writing your master’s thesis.

The real problem of enhanced performance drugs

And this highlights the real problem in using drugs like Adderall, an addictive substance that comes with the same physical issues of tolerance and dependency other illicit substances we discuss on this site carry, to improve academic performance, and that is because they become a crutch.

Much of the recent debate around smart drugs has addressed the societal good that can come through the increased academic and cognitive performance that the collective will gain. But how far can we say we’ve come as a society when the mental and emotional health of our students comes at the price of establishing addictive patterns and dependencies, physically, psychologically and emotionally?

How smart can we say the pursuit of good grades is when we’re teaching students that the answer to doing better doesn’t lay within them, but in a bottle of pills.

About the author
Dr. Urschel is Co-Founder and Chief Medical Strategist for Enterhealth, one of the finest residential and outpatient treatment programs in the nation. Known as one of the country's foremost authorities on substance abuse and addiction, Dr. Harold Urschel is the author of the New York Times best seller, “Healing the Addicted Brain.” He is a coveted speaker on substance abuse and the latest treatments of the chronic brain disease of addiction on both the local and national stage.
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