Metabolic function smart drugs provide mental benefits by generally facilitating the body’s metabolic processes related to the production of new tissues and the release of energy from food and fat stores. Creatine, a long-time favorite performance-enhancement drug for competitive athletes, was in the news recently when it was found in a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover trial to have significant cognitive benefits – including both general speed of cognition and improvements in working memory. Ginkgo Biloba is another metabolic function smart drug used to increase memory and improve circulation – however, news from recent studies raises questions about these purported effects.
A total of 14 studies surveyed reasons for using prescription stimulants nonmedically, all but one study confined to student respondents. The most common reasons were related to cognitive enhancement. Different studies worded the multiple-choice alternatives differently, but all of the following appeared among the top reasons for using the drugs: “concentration” or “attention” (Boyd et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; Rabiner et al., 2009; Teter et al., 2003, 2006; Teter, McCabe, Cranford, Boyd, & Guthrie, 2005; White et al., 2006); “help memorize,” “study,” “study habits,” or “academic assignments” (Arria et al., 2008; Barrett et al., 2005; Boyd et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; DuPont et al., 2008; Low & Gendaszek, 2002; Rabiner et al., 2009; Teter et al., 2005, 2006; White et al., 2006); “grades” or “intellectual performance” (Low & Gendaszek, 2002; White et al., 2006); “before tests” or “finals week” (Hall et al., 2005); “alertness” (Boyd et al., 2006; Hall et al., 2005; Teter et al., 2003, 2005, 2006); or “performance” (Novak et al., 2007). However, every survey found other motives mentioned as well. The pills were also taken to “stay awake,” “get high,” “be able to drink and party longer without feeling drunk,” “lose weight,” “experiment,” and for “recreational purposes.”
The information learned in the tasks reviewed so far was explicit, declarative, and consistent within each experiment. In contrast, probabilistic and procedural learning tasks require the subject to gradually extract a regularity in the associations among stimuli from multiple presentations in which the correct associations are only presented some of the time, with incorrect associations also presented. Findings are mixed in these tasks. Breitenstein and colleagues (2004, 2006) showed subjects drawings of common objects accompanied by nonsense word sounds in training sessions that extended over multiple days. They found faster learning of the to-be-learned, higher probability pairings between sessions (consistent with enhanced retention over longer delays). Breitenstein et al. (2004) found that this enhancement remained a year later. Schlösser et al. (2009) tested subjects’ probabilistic learning ability in the context of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, comparing performance and brain activation with MPH and placebo. MPH did not affect learning performance as measured by accuracy. Although subjects were overall faster in responding on MPH, this difference was independent of the difficulty of the learning task, and the authors accordingly attributed it to response processes rather than learning.
First off, overwhelming evidence suggests that smart drugs actually work. A meta-analysis by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Oxford showed that Modafinil has significant cognitive benefits for those who do not suffer from sleep deprivation. The drug improves their ability to plan and make decisions and has a positive effect on learning and creativity. Another study, by researchers at Imperial College London, showed that Modafinil helped sleep-deprived surgeons become better at planning, redirecting their attention, and being less impulsive when making decisions.
The therapeutic effect of AMP and MPH in ADHD is consistent with the finding of abnormalities in the catecholamine system in individuals with ADHD (e.g., Volkow et al., 2007). Both AMP and MPH exert their effects on cognition primarily by increasing levels of catecholamines in prefrontal cortex and the cortical and subcortical regions projecting to it, and this mechanism is responsible for improving cognition and behavior in ADHD (Pliszka, 2005; Wilens, 2006).
Like caffeine, nicotine tolerates rapidly and addiction can develop, after which the apparent performance boosts may only represent a return to baseline after withdrawal; so nicotine as a stimulant should be used judiciously, perhaps roughly as frequent as modafinil. Another problem is that nicotine has a half-life of merely 1-2 hours, making regular dosing a requirement. There is also some elevated heart-rate/blood-pressure often associated with nicotine, which may be a concern. (Possible alternatives to nicotine include cytisine, 2’-methylnicotine, GTS-21, galantamine, Varenicline, WAY-317,538, EVP-6124, and Wellbutrin, but none have emerged as clearly superior.)
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Eugeroics (armodafinil and modafinil) – are classified as "wakefulness promoting" agents; modafinil increased alertness, particularly in sleep deprived individuals, and was noted to facilitate reasoning and problem solving in non-ADHD youth. In a systematic review of small, preliminary studies where the effects of modafinil were examined, when simple psychometric assessments were considered, modafinil intake appeared to enhance executive function. Modafinil does not produce improvements in mood or motivation in sleep deprived or non-sleep deprived individuals.