Monday, April 26, 2010

60 Minutes on Boosting Brain Power



Drugs like Adderrall and Ritalin are becoming more and more popular as brain boosters.

Yesterday, 60 minutes ran a segment titled "Boosting Brain Power" (link). It's about students taking drugs such as Adderrall and Ritalin to enhance their cognitive performance.

Adderrall is a prescription drug used to treat ADHD. It's a combination of amphetamines, which is why it decreases fatique and increases alertness, concentration and even libido. By boosting dopamine, amphetamine also tends to make people more motivated and interested in what they're doing. No surprise it's popular among students these days.

So popular, in fact, that according to 60 minutes, more than half of juniors and seniors at the university have tried attention deficit drugs for neuroenhancement. Only about 4% of the students actually have a prescription for them, but since doctors tend to prescribe more pills than the patients are taking, they're left with extra pills that then get distributed around campuses. For Adderrall, the market price is up to $5 per pill.

Although that might seem expensive, the students using smart drugs think it's an acceptable price to pay for better grades. The consensus seems to be that the drug is effective even in people without ADD or ADHD, and that there's nothing wrong in taking a drug to boost cognitive performance.

I find the generally positive attitude of the students a very good thing. I think nootropics and brain enhancement will become more and more mainstream as people begin to realize how much they can increase their own productivity. Sure, there will be skeptics, and once the bureaucrats get a clue of what's going on in colleges and universities, there will probably be more attempts at regulating nootropic use.

Together with potential long-term harm such as addiction, the general objection to smart drugs seems to be that it makes things less fair (see the comment section of the article for examples). As one student comments:

I feel that it is an unfair advantage. If the person next to me that has the exact same schedule takes an Adderall they can stay up the entire night knowing the material and come in and make a grade better than me.

This attitude is usually based on the idea that we should make people equal in all aspects of life. Since you can simply pop a pill to get a better grade, everyone who wants to compete would have to take one, so why not ban them to prevent unfairness?

The fallacy here is that people are not created equal in the first place – some are born smarter than others, some are willing to work harder than others, some have skills others don't, etc. There is no way to truly make people equal. We're not making it illegal for hard-working students to study more than their peers, nor are we forcing intelligent people to take stupid pills. So why should we ban nootropics?

Some people say that there's a difference to studying hard and taking a smart drug, because the former requires honest work and the latter is somehow "cheating". It is true that those taking Adderrall or some other drug may have an advantage compared to those not taking it, but so what? Surely increasing people's cognitive function is a good thing, even if there are those who don't want to do so. Is it cheating to get a good night's sleep before an exam or to eat healthily?

Once smart drugs become the norm – and in some campuses, they already are – people will still have to work hard to get good grades, because the general level of competition will go up. The end result, however, is that people will be smarter and more productive.

For those who wish to cling to some strange ideal of accepting nature as it is, I have only one question: What is more admirable, to be lucky enough to be born with good genes or to do everything in your power to be as good as you can be?

Besides, the world is already full of things that boost brain performance. Caffeine is probably the most famous one. Are those who are opposed to using Adderrall also against drinking a cup of coffee or a Red Bull before an exam? And, even though smoking is banned in many places, you can slap a nicotine patch on your arm and gain a similar "unfair advantage" without anyone raising an eyebrow. But for some reason, people accept old things as given and view new things with irrational suspicion.

The nootropic meme is spreading so fast that it's not just the students who view nootropics in a positive light – even the professors and lecturers are now admitting to taking stimulants to enhance their brains.

If you're still skeptical about nootropics, try to think of the good side. Yes, some of them are indeed addictive (like caffeine) and have side effects, and you shouldn't start popping pills randomly without reading about them first. But not everything that gives you an edge is harmful; some smart drugs are even neuroprotective against things like Alzheimer's disease.

Who knows, maybe they could even help you finish that book you always wanted to write, like the economics teacher at Harvard interviewed in the video.

For more information on nootropics and brain function, see these posts:

The Many Health Benefits of Rooibos Tea
Ashwagandha as a Nootropic – Experiment Begins
Nootropic Battle Conclusion: Acetyl-L-Carnitine vs. Ginkgo Biloba vs. Taurine
Green Tea Protects from the Psychological Effects of Stress in Rats



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12 kommenttia:

MCT April 27, 2010 at 2:48 AM  

People have always held that irrational attitude, a fear of some great injustice or offense should one decide to enhance their performance. Sports is one such example. In reality it looks like a phenomenon, which we in the U.S. have a modern term for - "hating". Hate on those who choose to be better because you cannot or will not do the same, either out of pride or to protect someone you're proud of.

Apparently it's far more important to people that achievement occur without "assistance" than for a student/athlete actually perform their absolute best. Would it really be such a crime against humanity for a higher standard of competency to exist across society, if we ever deregulated performance-enhancing drugs?

JLL April 27, 2010 at 10:52 AM  

@MCT,

Nicely put. And you know what they say about haters.

- JLL

Anonymous April 27, 2010 at 3:12 PM  

"The consensus seems to be that the drug is effective even in people without ADD or ADHD, and that there's nothing wrong in taking a drug to boost cognitive performance.

I find the generally positive attitude of the students a very good thing."

I find that attitude to be a very ignorant thing, not to mention very worrying.

This is the kind of materialism I don't like from my fellow life extension enthusiasts. My two main gripes-

1)We only need to look at some of the bad effects and even low level brain damage caused by psychiatric drugs to see that we really don't know as much about neuropharmacology and neurology in general to be confident of what we are doing. It should be a good enough reason for us to tread carefully.

2)We are making the terrible mistake of reducing all of our suffering (in the context of this article it's poor concentration and lack of energy) to a material, biological cause without the scientific evidence to prove it. Not only is this an exercise in scientism but it's highly unscientific!

It's our ignorance about the nature of consciousness and our inability to attain higher states of consciousness (through non drug methods) that lead us to this type of reductionism. We try and improve ourselves through drugs because we are unaware of a better way of doing it (and arrogantly conclude that there is NO better way of doing it). Perhaps we materialistic western consumers who spend more time focusing on the external world instead of the internal world are more prone to this type of thinking.

There are better ways to achieve energy, concentration, direction and well being without resorting to pharmocological 'enchancements' -check the oodles of research on meditation and find a good teacher.

Busyness, brain-training and amphetamines are all terrible ideas if we want to improve our performance. It's not 'all in the brain'.

JLL April 27, 2010 at 5:44 PM  

@Anonymous,

I don't think these students are looking for ways to attain "higher levels of consciousness" -- they just want increased focus, alertness and recall to aid their studying.

Many others also look into nootropics and smart drugs to improve their mood.

I don't see how meditation and nootropics are mutually exclusive; to each their own. Nobody has said there are no better ways. If meditation works for you, great.

And, like I said, if something causes short-term or long-term damage, then you should weigh the pros and cons and make your decision accordingly. However, many nootropics are in fact neuroprotective. It's not like we are talking about doing six lines of cocaine to feel good.

- JLL

The Rat April 27, 2010 at 6:58 PM  

JLL,

Have you tried any of the mentioned drugs? And if so what was your experience?

Your post provided me with some startling clarity, particularly with the caffeine analogies... All these things are effecting our brains so its silly to judge one differently to the others...

I guess the only question I have is does experimenting with all these things start to accumulate your risk factors for experiencing a significant or long-lasting detrimental effect from a substance? If there are any? Like caffeine has many negative side effects but none that would be considered long lasting if usage stopped. Is it the same for these? I guess I am channelling the almost surely someone-somewhere on the internet screaming "Adderrall and Ritalin ruined my mind/life!!!!"

Mitch Fletcher April 28, 2010 at 12:56 PM  

Nice post.
Regarding the issue of equality, one thing that has been observed is a difference in response to nootropics based on baseline levels. So naturally high-performing individuals receive less augmentation, while those with a lower baseline standard of focus/memory etc receive the most benefit. This might involve a ceiling effect, which makes the therapy vs enhancement argument redundant.
This may not be the case with all nootropics - who knows what the upper limits are of human cognitive power.
Anyway, I love the blog in general.

JLL April 28, 2010 at 2:26 PM  

@The Rat,

I haven't tried Adderrall or Ritalin, no. If I ever get my hands on some, I will make an experiment and report about it on this blog.

"I guess the only question I have is does experimenting with all these things start to accumulate your risk factors for experiencing a significant or long-lasting detrimental effect from a substance?"

That's a difficult question; I don't think anyone has the answer. It would take more time than we have to do a study on every possible combination of nootropics. I would certainly do some reading before combining things.

I think one's best bet is to see what the rodent and human studies say on individual drugs, then see if there are any reasons not to combine them (to avoid excess dopamine, serotonin syndrome, etc), read other people's experiences and start out slowly. Still, everyone is responsible for their own health. Some people are willing to take more risks than others, and that's fine.

@Mitch Fletcher,

That's a good point. Many substances probably make things more equal, not less. I don't necessarily see that as only a positive thing, though, because I would like to see the limits of human cognition pushed further, not just evened out.

- JLL

Increase Brain Power May 4, 2010 at 6:51 AM  

This is exactly some of the things that you should do in order to attain smart thinking.

Anonymous May 5, 2010 at 10:27 PM  

@JLL

"I don't think these students are looking for ways to attain "higher levels of consciousness" -- they just want increased focus, alertness and recall to aid their studying.

Many others also look into nootropics and smart drugs to improve their mood."

It goes without saying that intellectual development should be first and foremost, but determining how we do it is the issue. I'll always err on the side of caution when it comes to taking substances which alter the normal working of the brain and body.


"I don't see how meditation and nootropics are mutually exclusive; to each their own"

two things running against the use of drugs to improve attention,memory and mood on a long term basis-

1) it's based on the medical model of consciousness, which is bogus

2) the medical establishment's track records of trying to solve problems of a mental nature using pharmacuticals has been pretty disasterous- long term and short term side effects, antidepressants outperformed by placebo etc

Unless somebody can definitivly prove that concentration,memory and happyness can only be enhanced via pharmeucticals then the above 2 points should give us reason to tread carefully

"It's not like we are talking about doing six lines of cocaine to feel good."

These students want to feel good too and are taking drugs to achieve that.



btw love your site, I've learned stacks!

Anonymous May 24, 2010 at 12:34 AM  

These prescription drugs for ADHD such as ritalin act similar to amphetamine/methamphetamine and assuming the risks are similar (especially at large doses of ritalin), there may be a lifetime cost that outweighs the benefit. The brain will respond to excess dopamine and norepinephrine that may irreversible alter the brain, as by neurotoxicity from excess dopamine (one explanation for Parkinson's) and especially in a young brain, a down-regulation of receptors for neurotransmitters. Playing with neurotransmitters, while perfectly acceptable in the way of antidepressants, is not necessarily safe with regard to other transmitters. And while amphetamine-like stimulants will improve productivity, it might impair insight and if abused, good judgment. The point about insight is an important one. I spoke with at least one Pharm.D. who suggested that while stimulants will allow you to do more work, it won't enable you to do something you couldn't do before, i.e., it won't make you smarter. But productivity has its merits and if focus and productivity can be achieved by meditation, that would be a dream come true. Meditation seems like a stretch for a solution but herbs might help. Incidentally, I have experienced increased insight when problem-solving etc. with rhodiola, to name one. If one can improve insight and one's productivity/energy level is naturally high without impairing insight, that would yield great thoughts benefiting the thinker and the world.

Saluna_the_Student December 11, 2010 at 9:01 PM  

So far the report doesn't say what are the long-term health risks/benefits of using the drug. But still, I couldn't take my mind of the picture I have in the future - as people are leading busier lifestyles, don't they eat real nutritious food anymore and just keep on taking pills??

JLL December 12, 2010 at 11:42 AM  

@Saluna,

Boosting brain power and eating nutritious food are not mutually exclusive, are they? Besides, in the long run, we'll find better and safer ways of becoming smarter and more effective than taking pills whose long-term effects we don't know.

- JLL

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