How do neuro-enhancing drugs work?

22 November 2011

Question

How do neuro-enhancing drugs work?

Answer

Hannah - Well, neuro-enhancing drugs are also called cognitive enhancers or they're known as smart drugs, and they're basically pharmacological substances that are thought to improve certain aspects of cognition and brain function.

The important point about this is that pharmacological influences on cognition are not completely understood and cognition itself is a very complicated and multifaceted aspect of brain function. It encompasses numerous mental functions including attention, executive function, planning, problem solving and inhibition, spatial, verbal learning, and memory.

Cognitive enhancers include, for example, methylphenidate, also known as Ritalin, which is prescribed for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, also known as ADHD. Ritalin has also been bought over the internet and taken for cognition. It's thought to increase the concentration of neurotransmitters which are chemical messengers in the brain and specifically thought to increase concentration of dopamine and noradrenalin by blocking their reuptake, so that then these neurotransmitters are freely available to land on their receptor and activate the nerve cells then. How exactly this leads to an increase in certain cognitive aspects isn't really known. So, it's a new area really, cognitive enhancers and neuroscientists are trying to understand a bit more about it.

Chris - There was a rather worrying stat wasn't there that I think that Nature, the journal did a survey, and something like one person in five who is an academic said that they had or would definitely take these drugs if they thought it would buy them an extra night's work ahead of an important deadline.

Hannah - Well yes. It seems to be a trend for an increase prevalence. There's an increase number of people that are going on to the internet and buying these cognitive enhancers which is quite a dangerous thing to do really because you don't know what you're buying. It's not a prescribed thing that you're getting from the doctor. You don't know what you're actually going to get. And even more worrying is the fact that there seems to be an increasing number of students that are using these drugs because there's pressure on them to get good grades, and they think that they can use these drugs to increase their attention. Well actually, the adolescent brain and the 20 something year old brain is really plastic and we don't know the effects these cognitive enhancers will have in the long term. And really, if you want to enhance your cognition then why not use the tried and tested method that's exercise and sleep.

Chris - I thought you were going to say coffee.

Hannah - And coffee as well!

Chris - Yes, Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Maths at Oxford was on this program and said, "Mathematician is a machine for converting coffee into mathematical formulae and papers."

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