Smart Drugs

by Brian Carty, MD, MSPH

I heard a radio ad last week for something called “IQ Enhance” to “increase your brain power in 7 minutes.”  If it were that easy, wouldn’t “all” students be “above average,” to quote Governor Richard Perry of Texas and Garrison Keeler?

Maybe you’re old enough to have seen the TV series “The Outer Limits” in the 1960s.  I remember an episode in which an average guy is subjected to a process which increases his intelligence at a tremendous rate.  As his IQ goes up his head gets bigger, so that he looks like an alien with a huge head.  At the end of the show, he’s in a chamber which resembles an elevator with flashing lights.  Some forty years later, has science advanced enough so that we can accomplish the same thing by just taking pills, “smart drugs?”

Not exactly, but there has been some progress in that direction.  There are, of course, drugs which enhance mental performance in people with a variety of diseases.  However, to enhance mental performance in normal people, that’s the meaning of the term “smart drugs.”

Modafinil (Provigil) is an alertness-promoting drug which can be used for people with excessive drowsiness associated with shift work disorder .  This disorder affects 5-10% of night shift workers and involves excessive sleepiness during night shifts and insomnia during the day, when night shift workers usually sleep. Because modafinil also improves the deficits seen in normal people with sleep deprivation, it is inevitable that this drug will be used for fatigue or sleepiness in normal people.

Both amphetamines and modafinil are sometimes used in the military to counteract the effects of fatigue and sleep deprivation.   Nicotine and a drug used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, donepezil (Aricept), both enhanced the performance of pilots in flight simulation tasks 

Scientists are always on the lookout for new candidates for use as smart drugs.  Some researchers think that Salvia Divinorum, the most potent hallucinogen known, may eventually have a variety of uses in treating depression and other diseases.  However, I can’t think of any drug which makes people hallucinate and see little green men, as did one loser, or user, which later turned out to be a useful drug.

Many users have documented their Salvia trips on You Tube.  Some criticize the “Tubers” as people who use the drug frivolously.  “They’re not really taking it as a tool to explore their inner psyche,” said Daniel J. Siebert, a Californian who pioneered the production of Salvia extracts.  “They’re just taking it to get messed up.”   So what’s the difference?

As for exploring your “inner psyche,” some years back a drug user told me of a great revelation of truth he had while using a psychedelic drug.  Despite the intense hallucinations caused by the drug, he managed to write down his revelation.  The next morning, he found a scrap of paper which read “This room smells funny.”


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