Students preparing for exams and those in high-pressured jobs are turning to chemical brain boosters to give them an edge. These nootropics or “smart drugs” are described by the Australian Drug Foundation (ADF) as “cognitive enhancers”. Essentially, they’re chemical compounds purported to improve memory, alertness and concentration. But do they work and what are the risks?
What are “Smart drugs”?
Smart drugs fall under the broad category of stimulants (which promote wakefulness and alertness) and they’re usually prescribed for medical conditions such as sleep disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and chronic fatigue. However, they’re increasingly being used – or misused – to boost alertness and brain power. Nobody knows how many Australians are using these drugs, but the ADF reports that they’re predominantly being sought out by university students, shift workers and executives.
The most commonly-used smart drugs include Modafinil, which is used to treat narcolepsy and obstructive sleep apnoea, and methylphenidate (such as Ritalin), which is used to treat chronic fatigue, depression and ADHD in children. These are sourced through GPs under false pretences or the internet.
How do they work?
The drugs all do different things to the body, but a common effect is the increase of the brain chemical dopamine, which regulates feelings of pleasure, alertness and attention.
“Nootropics have some effect on the brain and some increase blood flow,” Professor Con Stough, of Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for Human Psychopharmacology in Melbourne, says. “The brain uses about 25 per cent of the body’s oxygen and when you do tasks that require a lot of memory, cognition and attention, you use extra oxygen.”
However, Stough says that while these drugs may help you stay awake, there’s no evidence that they improve intelligence. He says a US university study gave half a class of students a placebo and the other half received ADHD medication. The students then did cognitive tests. Those students on the ADHD medication thought they performed better – but actually didn’t.
The known and unknown risks
Health experts are concerned about the side effects, such as anxiety,headaches, nausea and raised blood pressure, particularly in those taking a cocktail of the drugs. The long-term effects are unknown. They can also have contraindications, for example in those with anxiety or glaucoma.
“A doctor prescribes drugs based on the person, body type and issues they have and ensures the medicine suits the symptoms,” Julie Rae, ADF’s head of information and research, says. “[They’re] putting their health at risk to try to make themselves smarter.”
No smart evidence
“‘Smart drugs’ isn’t a term we endorse – it makes the drugs sound like more than they are,” Rae says, adding that these drugs won’t live up to expectations. “People think these drugs will help them study better and be more focused, but what are we doing that we’re pushing people into thinking they need to change the chemistry of their brain to succeed? I don’t think the use of smart drugs is the way to improve intelligence and get ahead. There will always be a cost.”
Natural brain boosters
Vitamin B: B vitamins help produce healthy brain chemicals. Good sources include grains, green, leafy vegetables, chicken, nuts and fruit.
Fish Oil: Omega-3 fatty acids in fish may slow the deterioration of brain cells as we age. The Heart Foundation recommends two servings of oily fish such as salmon per week.
Gingko Biloba: This is used in Chinese medicine and believed to improve cognition by improving blood flow to the brain.
What it’s like to take the drugs
Gabriella*, 32, works in finance
“I saw a piece in the news last year about how smart drugs were being used by entrepreneurs and executives in Silicon Valley. These were intelligent, high-achieving people who knew what they were doing… so I tried them, too.
“A few mornings each week I take a couple of stimulants – pharmaceutical and ‘natural’ products that I buy online from the US. They’re legal in Australia but friends tell me I must be mad because how do I really know what’s in them. They worry about long-term side effects, but I’ve checked the companies I buy from and I’m satisfied the products are safe.
“On the days when I take smart drugs I feel more energetic, I can concentrate on the harder tasks for longer and my thinking feels clearer and sharper. It could be because I know I’ve taken these things, so I just think I’m sharper and smarter. Either way – they give me what I’m looking for.”