Do 'Smart Drugs' really exist?

...and how clever can they actually make you?
24 January 2013



“Do Smart Drugs drugs really exist? Are they just science fiction? And if they do exist, how do they work and how clever can they actually make you?”


A new drug appears to be hitting the UK classrooms. Students are increasingly buying, over the internet, off prescription drugs to help with their exam revision. They're called 'Smarter Drugs' or cognitive enhancers and 16% of American students, and 1 in 10 students here at Cambridge University, have admitted to taking these drugs.

A number of questions about these drugs have come in from our listeners via Facebook and I visited Professor Barbara Sahakian at Cambridge University to get the answers. Barbara - These drugs do exist. They're called cognitive enhancing or smart drugs, and we have a number of different kinds of these drugs.

So for instance, I help to do the proof of concept studies for the drugs which are cholinesterase inhibitors. Those drugs are to boost acetylcholine in the brain and improve cognition in patients with Alzheimer's disease and they're currently now used as treatments and approved by NICE (The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence is a special health authority of the English National Health Service).

And they help boost really attention and concentration, and they frequently keep patients functioning at their best level. Then we have other drugs that might boost the chemicals in the brain called dopamine or noradrenaline, those neurotransmitters, and those are drugs such as methylphenidate or Ritalin as we know it, and those are used frequently in the treatment of ADHD (attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder), and they are very beneficial.

We've done studies here at Cambridge showing that even if you're a healthy volunteer, you can find enhancement of different forms of cognition using these drugs like methylphenidate or Ritalin and there's now a newer drug called modafinil which was licensed in about 1997 as Provigil for narcolepsy which is excessive daytime sleepiness. And that is being increasingly used by healthy people as a lifestyle drug.

Hannah - And how are they exactly improving cognition in these healthy volunteers?

Barbara - With our studies in healthy humans with modafinil, we have actually seen improvements in forms of executive function, but also on a pattern recognition memory test. So, on memory tests, we've seen improvements. And the interesting thing is that it doesn't take much for a small improvement and one of the forms of cognition to have a knock-on effect across a wide range of function. So for instance in 2008, there was the Academy of Medical Sciences report and that stated that even a small 10% improvement on a memory score might lead to a higher A level grade or degree class. So there's quite a lot to play for here, and so, there's a lot of neuro ethical issues too about coercions and student use of these drugs when they're not actually got a neuropsychiatric disorder such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.


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