Smart Drugs and Nootropics: Can a pill improve your abilities for study and work?

smart drugs modafinil

The discovery that Modafinil, one of the most widespread “smart drugs”, really improves the cognitive abilities of anyone has meant a small revolution in this unknown world. Brokers, students, workaholics … have been using substances like Adderall or Ritalin for years to get that extra boost.

But it was suspected that none was entirely effective. At least, not without effort and additional behaviours by its users. Modafinil has just joined a list that starts with coffee and nicotine and has a single goal: to overcome the limits of our brain and our body. At whatever price?

What is Modafinil?

A prescription drug, like almost all smart drugs. It was commercialized in 1998 as a drug against narcolepsy, but within a few years the public discovered its other qualities: decreased fatigue, lack of sleep, extra concentration on any task, improved memory.  A mental state in the that everything works with extraordinary lucidity (although there are cases of hallucinations), there are no distractions, no bed is missing. Oh, and frequent travelers can forget about jet-lag.

I have spoken with Modafinil users and agree with something that the New York Times published in 2004: those who consume it can spend up to days without the need to sleep , but go to bed quietly when they consider it appropriate. Effects known for years and that made Provigil – the first brand name of Modafinil – was made with a third of the market of prescription stimulants; almost always for uses not included in the label.

What are its advantages?

The Modafinil multiplied its sales tenfold in their first decade of life and became drug craze among people with greater mental stress researchers, computer scientists , students, senior executives. The US media gave it hype at the end of the last decade, while the armed forces of several countries investigate the substance to create combat pilots and foot soldiers immune to fatigue (and not have to consume the usual and most harmful amphetamines).

It has even reached space, even the astronauts of the International Space Station … Modafinil is the grail of those who do not want drugs to party or live altered states of consciousness: only to be more effective.

Even Hollywood paid attention to him. The movie “Without Limits” (2011) showed a Bradley Cooper capable of “getting 100% brain performance” with a magic pill. Of course, the Hollywood pill – inspired by the substance – made him a superhuman. And the premise will become a series this fall, just in time to coincide with the confirmation of the “superpowers” of Modafinil.

What are the risks?

The cultural problem is obvious: the moment we start to consume illegal substances to improve our performance we are establishing a kind of “doping every day”. That is not new either, the difference is that now the stereotype of the brooder has been replaced by one with more “healthy” habits that consumes one pill instead of four million stripes.

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James McGoguh, a psychiatrist at the University of Los Angeles, told The Atlantic that few adults “are going to suffer horrible effects from consuming these substances. The argument of the article? 

Millions of adults consume them and at the moment no one is dying. The problem is that nobody is very sure of its long-term effects. Because there are still no investigations that go beyond two and a half years of use.

Apart from the adverse effects and interactions that every medicine has – here is the prospect for our country – the biggest fear that the expert Barbara Sahakian has is that it “affects the architecture of the dream”. Sahakian, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Cambridge, has spent years researching the drug, after realizing its popularity among university students.

Other users agree that it can become antisocial when activated : the mind concentrates on the task at hand – which can be anything from devouring a technical manual to an Angry Birds game that makes you miss the bus stop or the notion of time. 

It is also suspected that the drug is quite addictive if it is abused. And Sahakian also warns of another additional problem: Internet.

Nature magazine, which devoted a couple of articles to the use of Modafinil by students, surveyed its readers. 34% of them went online to get the drugs. And Sahakian’s warning in The Guardian is applicable to any non-legal substance use:

“A lot of people, especially students, get [Modafinil] via the Internet, so they do not know what they’re buying, it could be anything, it does not come from a reliable source, they do not know if it’s contaminated, and they do not know if it’s sure to take it.”

Intelligence can be increased by brain stimulation

The Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a technique that involves stimulating magnetically deep in the brain, can release responsible for intelligent high level activity brain areas, thus enabling people with intellectual limitations are able to understand arduous scientific theories or acquire complex knowledge. 

The EMT acts on the electromagnetic fields generated by the brain and is commonly used for the treatment of depressions. However, this technology allows at the same time to increase the intellectual capacity of people, as revealed by the director of the Centre for The Mind and professor at the University of Sydney, Allan Snyder, in an interview that appeared in The NewYork Times Magazine. The discovery has revolutionized research on the functional exploration of the brain through electromagnetic techniques. 

The researchers began by studying the behaviour of autistic patients who stood out for their intellectual talents. Starting from the fact that great sages like Einstein or Newton were in some way autistic, the researchers conceived the hypothesis that the exceptional intellectual qualities of these geniuses were due not to their having an extraordinary brain, but rather to suffering from a defect in the brain. the brain functioning that prevented them from maintaining normal social relationships. 

Genius and function 

The theory is based on the fact that when one area of ​​the brain does not perform its function because it is damaged, another part of the brain “uncovers” its abilities. Therefore, assuming that the damage caused to a part of the brain, the left temporal lobe, unlocks the creative capacity of the rest of the organ, the Australian researchers experimented with volunteers who lent themselves to the temporary blockade of brain signals related to daily attention, which produced the effect of releasing deeper layers of the brain capable of assimilating complex intellectual works. 

The work focused on volunteers who measured their ability to draw, correct and perform difficult mathematical operations. The EMT was applied to temporarily quiet the activity of the left hemisphere of the brain where the speech and memory centres are located. 40 percent of them acquired extraordinary intellectual skills in just fifteen minutes. 

Snyder’s work raises new questions about how we understand the limits of human intelligence and, in general, how the brain works. Also, this research raises reservations in some segments of the scientific community, considering that more experimental work is needed to verify the hypothesis that genius, like autism, comes from the alteration of some neuronal circuits. 

Doubts and promises 

The EMT technique has been applied since 1985 as a therapy for the treatment of some mental illnesses such as depression, obsessions, schizophrenia, and even Alzheimer, but in the same way that scientists consider it a promising therapy, others doubt it off its effectiveness. 

The application to specific brain areas of a probe that generates a low-frequency magnetic field, as EMT does, was originally thought of as a system for the exploration of the nervous system. 

It was soon discovered that EMT modified the release of specific brain chemicals, such as serotonin or dopamine in animals, which led to the idea of ​​applying it to diseases associated with these substances. 

Allan Snyder did not take long to think that, in the same way that the EMT acts favorably on the brain of people afflicted with certain diseases, it would also be capable of improving the intellectual capacity of people.