Racetams are often used as a smart drug by finance workers, students, and individuals in high-pressure jobs as a way to help them get into a mental flow state and work for long periods of time. Additionally, the habits and skills that an individual acquires while using a racetam can still be accessed when someone is not taking racetams because it becomes a habit.
Yet some researchers point out these drugs may not be enhancing cognition directly, but simply improving the user’s state of mind – making work more pleasurable and enhancing focus. “I’m just not seeing the evidence that indicates these are clear cognition enhancers,” says Martin Sarter, a professor at the University of Michigan, who thinks they may be achieving their effects by relieving tiredness and boredom. “What most of these are actually doing is enabling the person who’s taking them to focus,” says Steven Rose, emeritus professor of life sciences at the Open University. “It’s peripheral to the learning process itself.”
So what about the flip side: a drug to erase bad memories? It may have failed Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but neuroscientists have now discovered an amnesia drug that can dull the pain of traumatic events. The drug, propranolol, was originally used to treat high blood pressure and heart disease. Doctors noticed that patients given the drug suffered fewer signs of stress when recalling a trauma.
The majority of nonmedical users reported obtaining prescription stimulants from a peer with a prescription (Barrett et al., 2005; Carroll et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; DuPont et al., 2008; McCabe & Boyd, 2005; Novak et al., 2007; Rabiner et al., 2009; White et al., 2006). Consistent with nonmedical user reports, McCabe, Teter, and Boyd (2006) found 54% of prescribed college students had been approached to divert (sell, exchange, or give) their medication. Studies of secondary school students supported a similar conclusion (McCabe et al., 2004; Poulin, 2001, 2007). In Poulin’s (2007) sample, 26% of students with prescribed stimulants reported giving or selling some of their medication to other students in the past month. She also found that the number of students in a class with medically prescribed stimulants was predictive of the prevalence of nonmedical stimulant use in the class (Poulin, 2001). In McCabe et al.’s (2004) middle and high school sample, 23% of students with prescriptions reported being asked to sell or trade or give away their pills over their lifetime.
The smart pill industry has popularized many herbal nootropics. Most of them first appeared in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine. Ayurveda is a branch of natural medicine originating from India. It focuses on using herbs as remedies for improving quality of life and healing ailments. Evidence suggests our ancestors were on to something with this natural approach.
These are quite abstract concepts, though. There is a large gap, a grey area in between these concepts and our knowledge of how the brain functions physiologically – and it’s in this grey area that cognitive enhancer development has to operate. Amy Arnsten, Professor of Neurobiology at Yale Medical School, is investigating how the cells in the brain work together to produce our higher cognition and executive function, which she describes as “being able to think about things that aren’t currently stimulating your senses, the fundamentals of abstraction. This involves mental representations of our goals for the future, even if it’s the future in just a few seconds.”
My predictions were substantially better than random chance7, so my default belief - that Adderall does affect me and (mostly) for the better - is borne out. I usually sleep very well and 3 separate incidents of horrible sleep in a few weeks seems rather unlikely (though I didn’t keep track of dates carefully enough to link the Zeo data with the Adderall data). Between the price and the sleep disturbances, I don’t think Adderall is personally worthwhile.
The use of prescription stimulants is especially prevalent among students. Surveys suggest that 0.7–4.5% of German students have used cognitive enhancers in their lifetimes. Stimulants such as dimethylamylamine and methylphenidate are used on college campuses and by younger groups. Based upon studies of self-reported illicit stimulant use, 5–35% of college students use diverted ADHD stimulants, which are primarily used for enhancement of academic performance rather than as recreational drugs. Several factors positively and negatively influence an individual's willingness to use a drug for the purpose of enhancing cognitive performance. Among them are personal characteristics, drug characteristics, and characteristics of the social context.