“You know how they say that we can only access 20% of our brain?” says the man who offers stressed-out writer Eddie Morra a fateful pill in the 2011 film Limitless. “Well, what this does, it lets you access all of it.” Morra is instantly transformed into a superhuman by the fictitious drug NZT-48. Granted access to all cognitive areas, he learns to play the piano in three days, finishes writing his book in four, and swiftly makes himself a millionaire.

Limitless is what you get when you flatter yourself that your head houses the most complex known object in the universe, and you run away with the notion that it must have powers to match.

A number of so-called ‘smart drugs’ or cognitive enhancers have captured attention recently, from stimulants such as modafinil, to amphetamines (often prescribed under the name Adderall) and methylphenidate (also known by its brand name Ritalin). According to widespread news reports, students have begun using these drugs to enhance their performance in school and college, and are continuing to do so in their professional lives.

Yet are these smart drugs all they are cracked up to be? Can they really make all of us more intelligent or learn more? Should we be asking deeper questions about what these pharmaceuticals can and can’t do?

Thought process

Cognition is a suite of mental phenomena that includes memory, attention and executive functions, and any drug would have to enhance executive functions to be considered truly ‘smart’. Executive functions occupy the higher levels of thought: reasoning, planning, directing attention to information that is relevant (and away from stimuli that aren’t), and thinking about what to do rather than acting on impulse or instinct. You activate executive functions when you tell yourself to count to 10 instead of saying something you may regret. They are what we use to make our actions moral and what we think of when we think about what makes us human.

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.”

The prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain is the zone that produces such representations, and it is the focus of Arnsten’s work. “The way the prefrontal cortex creates these representations is by having pyramidal cells – they’re actually shaped like little pyramids – exciting each other. They keep each other firing, even when there’s no information coming in from the environment to stimulate the circuits,” she explains.

Several chemical influences can completely disconnect those circuits so they’re no longer able to excite each other. “That’s what happens when we’re tired, when we’re stressed.” Drugs like caffeine and nicotine enhance the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which helps restore function to the circuits. Hence people drink tea and coffee, or smoke cigarettes, “to try and put [the] prefrontal cortex into a more optimal state”.

True enhancement

In a broad sense, this is enhancement; in a stricter one, it’s optimisation. “I think people think about smart drugs the way they think about steroids in athletics,” Arnsten says, “but it’s not a proper analogy, because with steroids you’re creating more muscle. With smart drugs, all you’re doing is taking the brain that you have and putting it in its optimal chemical state. You’re not taking Homer Simpson and making him into Einstein.”

Smart drugs have provoked anxiety about whether students who take drugs to enhance performance are cheating, and whether they will put pressure on their peers to do likewise to avoid being at a competitive disadvantage.

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.”

Or as one US student told researcher Scott Vrecko in 2013: “I remember getting just completely absorbed in one book, and then another, and as I was writing I was making connections between them [and] actually enjoying the process of putting ideas together. I hadn’t had that before.


Read the full article "The truth about smart drugs" at BBC.com.