Some of the newest substances being used as ‘smart drugs’ are medically prescribed for other conditions. For example, methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin, is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). So is Adderall, a combination drug containing two forms of amphetamine. These are among a suite of pharmaceuticals now being used by healthy people, particularly university students, to enhance their capabilities for learning or working.
Only two of the eight experiments reviewed in this section found that stimulants enhanced performance, on a nonverbal fluency task in one case and in Raven’s Progressive Matrices in the other. The small number of studies of any given type makes it difficult to draw general conclusions about the underlying executive function systems that might be influenced.
That doesn’t necessarily mean all smart drugs – now and in the future – will be harmless, however. The brain is complicated. In trying to upgrade it, you risk upsetting its intricate balance. “It’s not just about more, it’s about having to be exquisitely and exactly right. And that’s very hard to do,” says Arnstein. “What’s good for one system may be bad for another system,” adds Trevor Robbins, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. “It’s clear from the experimental literature that you can affect memory with pharmacological agents, but the problem is keeping them safe.”
Taken together, these considerations suggest that the cognitive effects of stimulants for any individual in any task will vary based on dosage and will not easily be predicted on the basis of data from other individuals or other tasks. Optimizing the cognitive effects of a stimulant would therefore require, in effect, a search through a high-dimensional space whose dimensions are dose; individual characteristics such as genetic, personality, and ability levels; and task characteristics. The mixed results in the current literature may be due to the lack of systematic optimization.
What if you could simply take a pill that would instantly make you more intelligent? One that would enhance your cognitive capabilities including attention, memory, focus, motivation and other higher executive functions? If you have ever seen the movie Limitless, you have an idea of what this would look like—albeit the exaggerated Hollywood version. The movie may be fictional but the reality may not be too far behind.
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"Piracetam is not a vitamin, mineral, amino acid, herb or other botanical, or dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake. Further, piracetam is not a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract or combination of any such dietary ingredient. [...] Accordingly, these products are drugs, under section 201(g)(1)(C) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 321(g)(1)(C), because they are not foods and they are intended to affect the structure or any function of the body. Moreover, these products are new drugs as defined by section 201(p) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 321(p), because they are not generally recognized as safe and effective for use under the conditions prescribed, recommended, or suggested in their labeling."