Also known as nootropics, smart drugs are stimulants – chemicals that activate nerve cells in the brain. They are usually only available on prescription for certain medical conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but they are increasingly being used by healthy people in search of a boost.
Amphetamine (trade name Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin): The use of amphetamines dates back to the 1920s, and they were popular with the armed forces during the Second World War. Adderall, a mixture of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine salts, and the closely related chemical methylphenidate (Ritalin) are now used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy – a severe sleep disorder. These drugs increase levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain involved in working memory – which is thought to boost cognitive function.
Modafinil (Provigil): Probably the most popular cognitive enhancer in use today, modafinil was originally developed in the 1970s and is used by patients on prescription to treat narcolepsy. A potent stimulant, modafinil also affects dopamine levels, although exactly how it exerts its effects in the brain is unknown.
Racetams and related chemicals (piracetam, Noopept): Another product of the 1970s, piracetam was originally developed as a treatment for motion sickness but is now prescribed for muscle spasms (myoclonus). There are now several different variations available, each with slightly different effects. It’s unknown exactly how racetams or the related drug Noopept work, but they seem to boost cognition by influencing several different neurotransmitter pathways in the brain.
Listen to Suzi Gage and Carl Roberts, of the University of Liverpool, discussing cognitive enhancers in the Say Why to Drugs podcast at bit.ly/TEScogenh