Do Brain Enhancement Pills Make You Smarter?
The World Today
In today’s world, we have medication for almost everything. Problems that were otherwise thought to be normal facets of the human condition are now categorized by certain disorders and mental illnesses. The further we understand the chemistry of the brain, the easier it is to identify structural deficiencies. Someone who had a case of the ‘blues’ may now suffer from a condition known as depression. A person that cannot focus properly can have attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). A patient that is often nervous and agitated can suffer from an anxiety disorder.
By and large, this is progress. A few generations before, someone that had panic attacks in public needed to just bite the bullet and toughen up. They had no tools to combat or mitigate the symptoms of their disease. In fact, it wasn’t considered to be a disease at all. On the flip side, consider the condition we all know as ‘pain.’ Today, pain is a treatable ailment. Someone suffering from old age can take painkillers to rectify this problem. And now we are in the throes of the opioid epidemic.
Identifying whether our expansive and prolific inventory of medicine is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is an answer for future generations. But now that we can identify a host of different mental disorders and use medicine to treat them, should we not also have the tools to improve our brains as a whole? The logic here is this: if we know how to fix it, shouldn’t we also know how to improve it?
Enter brain enhancement pills. But what do these little ‘helpers’ actually do? Do drugs that make you focus actually make you smarter?
The different types of study drugs have made a massive splash when they were introduced in the early 1990s. While there are now too many cognitive enhancers to name, we’re going to focus on the most popular; Adderall and Ritalin, of which you are probably familiar. Ritalin, the predecessor, is an FDA-approved medication used to treat ADD and ADHD. Since its introduction, the prescription rate of the drug has quadrupled, leading to what many experts consider an ‘epidemic in stimulants.’
Ritalin’s efficacy is one that’s extremely respected in medicine. The debate of whether its harmful for society aside, the drug does wonders for those who need it (we’ll explain the science later). Patients suffering from ADD and ADHD can experience life-changing results as, once medicated, they are finally capable of focusing on their tasks in academia and the workplace, can experience a type of ‘calmness’ otherwise unknown to them, and stimulate their reward systems thus creating balance.
If those suffering from ADD and ADHD can take a pill that effectively improves their cognitive function and centralizes their thought structure, what happens when someone with perfectly healthy brain chemistry takes the stimulant? Do they become ‘super’ versions of themselves? That movie Limitless, is it rooted in reality?
Those Without Prescriptions
America’s academia and work culture certainly seem to think so. Only two years ago, it was estimated that one out of every five college students had taken a neuroenhancer at least once in their college careers, using it to sharpen their focus, boost productivity, and increase energy. In fact, ‘popping an Addy,’ the slang name for Adderall, has become a staple of the iPhone culture. Out with coffee, nicotine, and sugar—now students can take pills like Adderall to push through an all-nighter and deliver that last-minute essay.
This, of course, means the drug does indeed influence those who do not suffer from ADD and ADHD. Science tells us that those without deficiencies experience more of an effect, seeing as they have nothing to compensate for and often have no tolerance. At a molecular level, there is no difference between the way the drug interacts with the brain.
Then, if these employees and students who don’t need cognitive enhancers are taking them to enhance cognition, focus, and motivation, does that mean they are becoming a more intelligent version of themselves?
How Neuroenhancers Work
Every neuroenhancer is going to work slightly different than other medications akin to them. It depends solely on the purpose of the intended medication; was this substance engineered to treat Alzheimer’s disease or was it intended to help those with ADHD focus? For sake of explanation, we’ll focus on Ritalin, otherwise known as methylphenidate.
In our brains, we have messengers known as neurotransmitters. They are responsible for the communication between neurons. Monoamines, the type of neurotransmitter stimulated by Ritalin (and the stimulants similar, i.e. Adderall) govern your psyche, mood, attention, motivation, and happiness. Naturally, your brain will produce a certain amount of monoamines in order to remain balanced. This is to say these neurotransmitters regulate normalcy.
When Ritalin enters the bloodstream, it stimulates the monoamines, driving the brain to produce more of the neurotransmitter. Of the monoamines, dopamine—a neurotransmitter directly linked to the reward center of the brain—is the most stimulated. It is thought that those with ADD and ADHD have a dopamine deficiency, rendering Ritalin a medication that can work to balance their brain chemistry.
As monoamines are released, a sense of calm, heightened focus, and higher energy ensues. As a result, the now-balanced patient can rid the ‘white noise’ and centralize their thought patterns, which improves their cognitive ability (dopamine is located in the prefrontal cortex, which is where all of our executive brain function is controlled).
Being that dopamine is linked to the reward center, those that do not have ADD or ADHD who use the drug can often feel ‘euphoria.’ Then, motivation follows. Dopamine regulates our ‘drive’ and being that it’s forced to produce in excess, these circuits activate and push the person to ‘do.’
But again, do they improve intelligence?
The idea of a smart pill would suppose that, once the medication is taken, different avenues and tunnels in the brain are created or, for lack of a better explanation, accessed. For years scientists and researchers have been obsessed with the idea of creating the ‘smart pill,’ when our ‘brain-enhancing’ medication is the only result of treating diseases which impair the working mind.
There have now been around 40 studies done regarding neuroenhancers and their effect on the stable, healthy, and balanced mind. We know their effectiveness in treating deficiencies, but can these types of drugs improve the brain as a whole?
Outside of rectifying certain gaps in the brain’s chemistry, brain-enhancement pills don’t increase intelligence. To answer this question, researchers took large groups of healthy adults and specified their studies on the three different types of cognition: working memory, learning memory, and cognitive function.
Study after study, what they discovered was this; neuroenhancers do little to raise the overall intelligence of a subject. By collecting test data from patients before administering medication, the substantial data that stood out focused on those who performed poorly initially; effectively those who were ‘less’ smart than other subjects.
For them, once the Ritalin was administered, there was an increase in the working memory. For the others, however, there were few changes. In fact, some tested better when simply using the placebo and some did not experience any ‘sensation’ from the stimulants at all.
At a fundamental level, these medications better our executive function. This means that—if they happen to work on the healthy subject—their working memory, critical thinking, and problem-solving, and brain plasticity would improve. Rather, the studies concluded that the medication simply assisted the healthy people to utilize their natural capacity. It’s not that they made anyone smarter, they just helped them better their tools to use their innate ‘smarts.’
Apart from long-term memory (which isn’t really an argument for overt intelligence), brain-enhancement pills work to enhance the control one has over their working mind, rather than enhancing the working mind itself. You can give an engine cleaner gasoline and it might run a bit better but it’s not going to go any faster—no matter what kind of fuel it’s using.
Brain-Enhancement Pills And Creativity
There’s a possibility that you’ve heard the relationship between neuroenhancers and the death of creativity. Logically, it’s not an absurd argument. Here you have a medication that works to focus the thinking mind and centralize thought—typically to one task—while creativity is about freedom of thought and the skill to drive it ‘outside the box.’
The truth is that too many monoamines can stiffen the working brain, resulting in cognitive inflexibility and difficulty switching channels. Multitasking, for instance, becomes difficult when monoamines are overstimulated. That said, do they hinder creativity as a whole?
In 2009, a study was conducted on Adderall and its effect on creativity. It implemented four tasks, two of which were divergent, meaning they have no right or wrong answers. The other two contained only one single answer. The study was engineered this way because creativity can be mutually exclusive to flexibility (in the eyes of the psychologist).
Once again, low-performing individuals improved once they took Ritalin. In fact, Ritalin actually improved some of the ‘healthy subject’s’ performances too—meaning it fostered creativity. It contrasted the original hypothesis, rendering the opposite to be true.
At this point in time, the idea that neuroenhancers hinder creativity is false. In fact, studies prove just the opposite.
The Negative Effects
As with any stimulant, there is an ugly flipside. Neuroenhancers like Ritalin and Adderall are categorized as Schedule II substances. This places them in the same category as cocaine, meth, and fentanyl—three drugs that live in infamy. By their nature, they can be dangerous.
Yet, neuroenhancers are one of the least deadly forms of medication. Opioids and benzodiazepines pair with alcohol and other substances horribly, and are easy to overdose from. Neuroenhancers are no different but they elicit these reactions in less extremes.
- Abnormal sleeping patterns
- Loss of appetite
- Stomach aches
- Shortness of breath
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Muscle Spasms
Constricted Blood Vessels
Being that it’s a stimulant, when prescribed doctors must always screen the patient for any heart conditions or liver problems that could make the use of such medication dangerous. In large amounts, they can cause stroke or heart failure.
For those prescribed Adderall, what can occur is this: once they take the drug, they celebrate because of the astounding efficacy. Their dopamine deficit is rectified and now they have clarity, focus, drive, and motivation. Their lives can become ‘normal’ to them. Over time, as tolerance builds—and it does so naturally—they will need higher doses of the drug to compensate in the same degree.
Eventually, the brain can regard Adderall as a neurotransmitter integral to its systematic functioning. This means, once removed, the brain can actually produce monoamines in a lesser extent than before. What ensues is an imbalance greater than the previous, which can cause depression, anxiety, extreme fatigue and lethargy, withdrawals, increased appetite, and more.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is also what fosters addiction. Yes, even study drugs can be addictive for some users.
The Non-Prescribed User
Now, for healthy people with regular brain chemistry, if they use Adderall for an extended period they are more at risk for negative side effects. Essentially, they carpet bomb their brain with a substance they have not built a tolerance for, stimulating their monoamines in extremely high levels, and when the substance is removed they are at higher risk for the aforementioned side effects.
It is in this pool of users that we most often witness the side effect psychosis, as the drug exercises part of the brain that functions properly, then causes the circuits to go haywire afterward. Lastly, the prolonged use of ‘smart drugs’ can inadvertently render the balanced brain imbalanced in the wake of its absence.
While brain enhancement pills can do magic for those suffering from monoamine deficiencies, studies do not show that they—in any way—boost intelligence. Rather, they optimize the function of the brain itself, making it ‘easier’ for someone to utilize their smarts rather than making them smarter. Is the promise of ‘smart drugs’ nothing but blown smoke?
As of now, that answer is yes.