By the end of 2009, at least 25 studies reported surveys of college students’ rates of nonmedical stimulant use. Of the studies using relatively smaller samples, prevalence was, in chronological order, 16.6% (lifetime; Babcock & Byrne, 2000), 35.3% (past year; Low & Gendaszek, 2002), 13.7% (lifetime; Hall, Irwin, Bowman, Frankenberger, & Jewett, 2005), 9.2% (lifetime; Carroll, McLaughlin, & Blake, 2006), and 55% (lifetime, fraternity students only; DeSantis, Noar, & Web, 2009). Of the studies using samples of more than a thousand students, somewhat lower rates of nonmedical stimulant use were found, although the range extends into the same high rates as the small studies: 2.5% (past year, Ritalin only; Teter, McCabe, Boyd, & Guthrie, 2003), 5.4% (past year; McCabe & Boyd, 2005), 4.1% (past year; McCabe, Knight, Teter, & Wechsler, 2005), 11.2% (past year; Shillington, Reed, Lange, Clapp, & Henry, 2006), 5.9% (past year; Teter, McCabe, LaGrange, Cranford, & Boyd, 2006), 16.2% (lifetime; White, Becker-Blease, & Grace-Bishop, 2006), 1.7% (past month; Kaloyanides, McCabe, Cranford, & Teter, 2007), 10.8% (past year; Arria, O’Grady, Caldeira, Vincent, & Wish, 2008); 5.3% (MPH only, lifetime; Du-Pont, Coleman, Bucher, & Wilford, 2008); 34% (lifetime; DeSantis, Webb, & Noar, 2008), 8.9% (lifetime; Rabiner et al., 2009), and 7.5% (past month; Weyandt et al., 2009).
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.
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Smart pills have huge potential and several important applications, particularly in diagnosis. Smart pills are growing as a highly effective method of endoscopy, particularly for gastrointestinal diseases. Urbanization and rapid lifestyle changes leaning toward unhealthy diets and poor eating habits have led to distinctive increasing lifestyle disorders such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), obesity, and gastric ulcers.
It may also be necessary to ask not just whether a drug enhances cognition, but in whom. Researchers at the University of Sussex have found that nicotine improved performance on memory tests in young adults who carried one variant of a particular gene but not in those with a different version. In addition, there are already hints that the smarter you are, the less smart drugs will do for you. One study found that modafinil improved performance in a group of students whose mean IQ was 106, but not in a group with an average of 115.
Another well-known smart drug classed as a cholinergic is Sulbutiamine, a synthetic derivative of thiamine which crosses the blood-brain barrier and has been shown to improve memory while reducing psycho-behavioral inhibition. While Sulbutiamine has been shown to exhibit cholinergic regulation within the hippocampus, the reasons for the drug’s discernable effects on the brain remain unclear. This smart drug, available over the counter as a nutritional supplement, has a long history of use, and appears to have no serious side effects at therapeutic levels.
Sure, those with a mental illness may very well need a little more monitoring to make sure they take their medications, but will those suffering from a condition with hallmark symptoms of paranoia and anxiety be helped by consuming a technology that quite literally puts a tracking device inside their body? For patients hearing voices telling them that they're being watched, a monitoring device may be a hard pill to swallow.
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.”
The beneficial effects as well as the potentially serious side effects of these drugs can be understood in terms of their effects on the catecholamine neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine (Wilens, 2006). These neurotransmitters play an important role in cognition, affecting the cortical and subcortical systems that enable people to focus and flexibly deploy attention (Robbins & Arnsten, 2009). In addition, the brain’s reward centers are innervated by dopamine neurons, accounting for the pleasurable feelings engendered by these stimulants (Robbins & Everett, 1996).
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.
It is known that American college students have embraced cognitive enhancement, and some information exists about the demographics of the students most likely to practice cognitive enhancement with prescription stimulants. Outside of this narrow segment of the population, very little is known. What happens when students graduate and enter the world of work? Do they continue using prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement in their first jobs and beyond? How might the answer to this question depend on occupation? For those who stay on campus to pursue graduate or professional education, what happens to patterns of use? To what extent do college graduates who did not use stimulants as students begin to use them for cognitive enhancement later in their careers? To what extent do workers without college degrees use stimulants to enhance job performance? How do the answers to these questions differ for countries outside of North America, where the studies of Table 1 were carried out?
I’ve been actively benefitting from nootropics since 1997, when I was struggling with cognitive performance and ordered almost $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe (the only place where you could get them at the time). I remember opening the unmarked brown package and wondering whether the pharmaceuticals and natural substances would really enhance my brain.
Panax ginseng – A review by the Cochrane Collaboration concluded that "there is a lack of convincing evidence to show a cognitive enhancing effect of Panax ginseng in healthy participants and no high quality evidence about its efficacy in patients with dementia." According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, "[a]lthough Asian ginseng has been widely studied for a variety of uses, research results to date do not conclusively support health claims associated with the herb."