How smart are smart drugs?

You can’t blame anyone for wanting to have the cognitive edge, for wanting to be that little bit smarter. Especially students, who it is claimed have been turning to so-called ‘smart’ drugs, like modafinil, to increase their chances of exam success, at a rate of about one in five,

But new research from the University of Nottingham suggests that modafinil may be having the opposite effect to that which they desire.

Dr Ahmed Mohammed, of the School of Psychology at Nottingham University Malaysia Campus, in a study published in the open access journal PLOS ONE, has shown that the drug, in fact, has negative effects on healthy people.

In the randomised, double-blind study, 32 subjects were given modafinil and 32 were given placebo. All were then tested using the Hayling Sentence Completion Test, in which they were asked to respond both accurately and quickly. Mohammed found that the drug increased reaction times and failed to improve task performance. Of the results he said:

“It has been argued that modafinil might improve your performance by delaying your ability to respond. It has been suggested that this ‘delay dependent improvement’ might improve cognitive performance by making people less impulsive. We found no evidence to support those claims.”

The current study also supports the findings of a previous study, which showed that modafinil impaired subjects’ ability to respond in a creative way, particularly when they were asked to think laterally. This effect was pronounced in those who had been classified as creative thinkers to begin with.

So, that’s the bad news. If we want to be smarter, we cannot simply rely on a pill to do the work for us (did we really think we could get away with it?). But are there ways we can enhance our natural cognitive gifts to enable us to perform at our intellectual peak?

Our grandmothers have the answers and it ain’t rocket science; enough sleep, good nutrition, moderate exercise and balancing recreation and work activities, are just a few of the common sense actions we can take to make the most of the brains we’ve got.

(Dr Ahmed’s research interests, by the way, are now moving on to non-pharmacological interventions, which seems like a helpful trajectory.)

Have you tried so-called ‘smart’ drugs? What effect did they have on you? Perhaps they helped under certain conditions? Or perhaps your experience is in keeping with the findings above? If you have other suggestions for how to improve on cognitive performance and brain vitality, please share your comment below.

Written by Jacqui Hogan