If smart drugs are the synthetic cognitive enhancers, sleep, nutrition and exercise are the "natural" ones. But the appeal of drugs like Ritalin and modafinil lies in their purported ability to enhance brain function beyond the norm. Indeed, at school or in the workplace, a pill that enhanced the ability to acquire and retain information would be particularly useful when it came to revising and learning lecture material. But despite their increasing popularity, do prescription stimulants actually enhance cognition in healthy users?
Two studies investigated the effects of MPH on reversal learning in simple two-choice tasks (Clatworthy et al., 2009; Dodds et al., 2008). In these tasks, participants begin by choosing one of two stimuli and, after repeated trials with these stimuli, learn that one is usually rewarded and the other is usually not. The rewarded and nonrewarded stimuli are then reversed, and participants must then learn to choose the new rewarded stimulus. Although each of these studies found functional neuroimaging correlates of the effects of MPH on task-related brain activity (increased blood oxygenation level-dependent signal in frontal and striatal regions associated with task performance found by Dodds et al., 2008, using fMRI and increased dopamine release in the striatum as measured by increased raclopride displacement by Clatworthy et al., 2009, using PET), neither found reliable effects on behavioral performance in these tasks. The one significant result concerning purely behavioral measures was Clatworthy et al.’s (2009) finding that participants who scored higher on a self-report personality measure of impulsivity showed more performance enhancement with MPH. MPH’s effect on performance in individuals was also related to its effects on individuals’ dopamine activity in specific regions of the caudate nucleus.
A number of so-called ‘smart drugs’ or cognitive enhancers have captured attention recently, from stimulants such as modafinil, to amphetamines (often prescribed under the name Adderall) and methylphenidate (also known by its brand name Ritalin). According to widespread news reports, students have begun using these drugs to enhance their performance in school and college, and are continuing to do so in their professional lives.
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That first night, I had severe trouble sleeping, falling asleep in 30 minutes rather than my usual 19.6±11.9, waking up 12 times (5.9±3.4), and spending ~90 minutes awake (18.1±16.2), and naturally I felt unrested the next day; I initially assumed it was because I had left a fan on (moving air keeps me awake) but the new potassium is also a possible culprit. When I asked, Kevin said:
SOURCES: Marvin Hausman, MD, CEO, Axonyx Inc. Axel Unterbeck, PhD, president, chief scientific officer, Memory Pharmaceuticals. Martha Farah, PhD, professor, department of psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania. Howard Gardner, PhD, Hobbs Professor of Education and Cognition, Harvard Graduate School of Education. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, May 2004. Neurology, July 2002. Alzheimer's Association.
Perceptual–motor congruency was the basis of a study by Fitzpatrick et al. (1988) in which subjects had to press buttons to indicate the location of a target stimulus in a display. In the simple condition, the left-to-right positions of the buttons are used to indicate the left-to-right positions of the stimuli, a natural mapping that requires little cognitive control. In the rotation condition, the mapping between buttons and stimulus positions is shifted to the right by one and wrapped around, such that the left-most button is used to indicate the right-most position. Cognitive control is needed to resist responding with the other, more natural mapping. MPH was found to speed responses in this task, and the speeding was disproportionate for the rotation condition, consistent with enhancement of cognitive control.
In the largest nationwide study, McCabe et al. (2005) sampled 10,904 students at 119 public and private colleges and universities across the United States, providing the best estimate of prevalence among American college students in 2001, when the data were collected. This survey found 6.9% lifetime, 4.1% past-year, and 2.1% past-month nonmedical use of a prescription stimulant. It also found that prevalence depended strongly on student and school characteristics, consistent with the variability noted among the results of single-school studies. The strongest predictors of past-year nonmedical stimulant use by college students were admissions criteria (competitive and most competitive more likely than less competitive), fraternity/sorority membership (members more likely than nonmembers), and gender (males more likely than females).