cognitive enhancing drugs

Smart drugs not so smart after all

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stick_figure_sitting_on_pills_1600_wht_13337There’s been much discussion over the years about smart drugs, adults taking medication intended for treating ADHD to keep them more alert, and students using them to stay awake as they prepare for exams.

New research however suggests you might be better off actually having a sleep. Or a cup of coffee – or both if you want to power nap (caffeine takes about 20 minutes to affect you so a quick coffee followed by a 20 minute power nap and when you wake up the caffeine has kicked in). Or a run in the park.

But back to the medication. The two commonest smart drugs used are methylphenidate (or Ritalin) and modafinil and the latest evidence suggests that they are over-rated when it comes to enhancing overall cognitive performance.

Researchers at Oxford University compared the results of experiments examining the effectiveness of smart drugs, coffee, and non-pharmaceutical interventions such as sleeping and exercise.

Ritalin was found to improve memory consolidation but not necessarily retrieval. It had no affect on improving attention and in the highest performers actually impaired their cognitive function. (Imagine what it’s doing to kids given this stuff).

Modafinil is used to treat narcolepsy and sleep problems and is said to be used by business people travelling across time zones so they are alert when they arrive at their destination. It was found to improve attention but not memory.

Caffeine helped to sustain attention but only on simple tasks.

Sleep however had a positive effect with even short spells of 6 minutes improving some brain functions.

Bouts of exercise helped speed of learning, episodic memory and long-term memory with the effects lasting up to two days.

So what’s your preference? Self-medicating on drugs designed for other purposes or taking more exercise and getting a good night’s sleep

See earlier post on this topic



Keeping up with speed 

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Keeping up with speedThe report that 10% of Cambridge University students are taking cognitive enhancing drugs is hardly groundbreaking news.

This has been known about and reported on for several years.

For example back in 2010 The Times  reported (6 July) that UK undergraduates were resorting more and more to “smart drugs” to boost exam performance and to enable them to cram better. Prescription drugs such as modafinil and Ritalin were being used by about 10% of students, mostly obtained via the internet with the risks that students were buying counterfeit drugs.

Modafinil is used in Britain to treat serious sleep disorders and in the USA for shift workers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s also used by the military to enhance alertness. (There were suggestions during the first gulf war that American pilots involved in friendly fire incidents might have been using amphetamine-related drugs at the time to prolong time in combat).

And 1 in 5 academics surveyed internationally by the journal Nature admitted taking cognitive enhancing drugs, some to combat jet lag. Nice to see the professors setting a good example!

A year after that news report the release of the film “Limitless” – “One pill. Anything is possible”,  re-opened a discussion about the use of smart drugs.

Modafinil and Ritalin are particularly mentioned as cognitive enhancers favoured by students, lecturers, combat troops and shift-workers. Pretty much a rehash of last July’s Times story on the BBC News web-site.

The late Richard Carlson, author of the best-selling “Don’t sweat the small stuff“, also wrote Slowing down to the speed of life”with Joseph Bailey in 1997.

Carlson was a Californian psychotherapist who specialised in stress and what would now be called positive psychology – learning to be happy and not worrying about the small stuff – “because it’s all small stuff“.

Even then he was encouraging us to slow down and live more in the moment. In the introduction to “Slowing down ….” Carlson talks about the use of computers as time savers (in the days of fax and before Facebook and Google) and multi-tasking, but argued that we don’t then enjoy the time we have saved but fill it with even more tasks in an effort to be more productive and squeeze even more into our lives.

Now only 15 years on, some Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) experts believe that constantly changing attention and distractions caused by modern technology in all its forms can lead to mild forms of ADD: impulsivity, irritability, ineffectiveness, being disorganised –  at the expense of creativity and productivity. All in an attempt to keep up with the flood of information, some of which is self-generated.

It’s no surprise then to read that sales of a drug used to treat ADD are soaring as increasing numbers of American adults report the condition. In 2011 Shire Pharmaceuticals reported Q1 sales up a third with the market expanding at 10% a year mainly because of an 18% annual increase in adults being diagnosed for what many thought to be a childhood condition (10 million adults and 4.5 million children have been diagnosed with this condition in the USA). The latest research shows that children treated for ADHD are three times more likely to misuse drugs as teenagers. No surprise really if they’ve been brought up on medication and believe that’s the answer to everything

And what happens in America …  Britain got its first support group for adults with the condition in 2010.

A full-page story in the business section of the Sunday Times (30/5/10) elaborates on the success of Shire pharma currently outselling Ritalin with their medications for ADHD and. who made news paying their US Chairman $10 million in salary and shares.

The CEO expects ADHD to be increasingly acknowledged as a source of adult problems here as in America including in the prison population. He says that in Europe if your child has ADHD it is considered a failure of parenting; in America; “they just want the best for their kids” so have doctors and psychiatrists prescribe them amphetamines.

I met Richard Carlson and his wife when they did a book tour of the UK in 1998. He looked the epitome of a laid back Californian. He signed my book with; “Keep a sane pace”. Sadly he died in 2006 of cardiac arrest on a plane in the middle of a tour to promote his latest book. It seems not even the experts are immune from the pace of modern life.


Original post 3 June 2010 with updates


Make better use of your brain

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High achievement has little to do with your IQ but to a partnership between your brain and behaviour.

So say Drs Brown and Fenske, regular contributors to the Harvard Business Review, in their book “The Winner’s Brain”.

They also believe that the brain retains the capacity to change throughout adulthood (also see “Old doesn’t mean stupid“).

They say if you put in the work you can enhance brain function which in turn will help you become more self-aware, more resilient and with better control over attention and emotional responses (some of the key aspects of emotional intelligence).

Using neuro-imaging techniques researchers can now see which parts of the brain are active when people are engaged in specific tasks and also what impact certain activities have on those areas. They believe that those functions can be enhanced –  literally fine-tuning the brain.

They suggest a number of strategies to help us perform better.

  1. Meditation for stress relief can affect visible changes in areas of the brain which in turn have an impact on our ability to control attention and our emotional response
  2. The bigger the task the more likely you are to procrastinate. Therefore you nedd to reframe the problem and break it into small, concrete steps (bite size chunks as trainers might say). It is the ability to change the way you look at a task or problem that is important and the more you do it the more success you have.
  3. Brain functions that provide focus break down when you are multi-tasking or have distractions. To work optimally you can’t multi-task because the brain has limitations when doing multiple things (see “Multi-tasking makes you stupider than smoking pot“). So eliminate distractions but not all of them. To be at your best you may need to reduce activity in parts of the brain involved in self-monitoring and self-criticism. So us a gentle distraction like background music or ambient sounds just enough to keep your critical self-conscious occupied so you can focus and work more easily. But avoid abrupt distractions like phone calls or e-mail alerts.

Source: HBR September 2010

Updated 5 November 2010: Neuroscientists at the University of Oxford have discovered that passing electricity through the brain, from the right parietal lobe to the left, improves mathematical ability. If you pass the current in the opposite direction however it reduces your ability.

The research was looking for ways of treating dyscalculia, the numerical equivalent of dyslexia, which is thought to affect 6% of the population. Such a treatment might also be useful for people who have suffered a stroke or brain injury.

Of course there would be nothing to stop people with normal ability in maths using such a treatment to improve their ability eg when taking exams. This could replace the smart drugs such as Ritalin and Provigil used by some people as cognitive enhancers by improving attention and alertness. (See my earlier post; “Keeping up with speed“).