Written by Dave Tuttle
Genius for All
The Future of "Smart Drugs"
The vast majority of people in the world, if asked, would probably like to be more intelligent. Why would they not? Society reveres individuals who can answer life’s greatest questions, and we encourage our children to strive for such achievements, but what if we all could reach such fantastic intellectual heights as the select few? What if we could take a pill and master a subject or think about the universe in a previously unimaginable way? One day your pharmacist could provide these very pills to you; to some extent, some of them might even be available now.
Nootropics are a class of drugs, often branded as “smart drugs,” that improve cognitive function in the brain. When most people think of smart drugs they picture something akin to NZT-48 from the Bradley Cooper film Limitless, however, caffeine, L-theanine, and many ADD medications all fall under the umbrella term of nootropics. While they may not be as potent or flashy as the Limitless pill, these substances have long been used by adults and students alike, whether it be to focus on a task or simply to maintain a healthy brain. So is it possible for a drug like the Limitless pill, a pill that makes you laser focused, possess incredible recall, and increase learning capacity tenfold, to exist? Well, possibly.
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One prospect for the beginnings of a smart pill are study drugs, most notably amphetamines, such as adderall, and similar stimulants, like ritalin. These drugs work by blocking the reuptake of the neurotransmitter dopamine, causing excessive levels of the molecule in the synapses of the brain (Austin). Dopamine, is particularly important for motivation, focus, and memory, and the elevated amounts of dopamine in the brain provide the stereotypical, intense concentration associated with adderall and ritalin, hence why they are useful in treating ADD. Though ADD medications may seem like perfect candidates for future smart drugs, they are not true nootropics as they have a bevy of side effects connected to them. These side effects include headaches, irritability, anxiety, and even heart palpitations, knocking out these classes of drugs as healthy and viable options.
While both amphetamine and non-amphetamine ADD medication are very helpful in treating ADD, it is not just the side effects that remove them from contending for becoming the real NZT-48. ADD medication does not allow a person to memorize a textbook overnight, it merely helps with characteristics like concentration and accomplishing tasks. However, increasing dopamine levels could be an excellent starting point for a smart pill, since dopamine is heavily associated with motivation and memory formation. By making improvements to these medications, neuroscientists could feasibly create a drug that eases learning and makes mastering a subject less time intensive.
But while adderall and ritalin are useful for studying and focus, they are most likely not the Limitless pill. The Limitless pill is believed to be based on a group of drugs used to treat daytime sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. The drug that is most widely considered to be the basis for NZT-48 would be modafinil. Individuals who do not suffer from narcolepsy and use modafinil solely for its supposed nootropic benefits report exceptional focus and an eagerness to complete even the most menial tasks. Studies support these self-documented assertions as well, a review published in 2015 of 24 studies, spanning over 20 years found that modafinil improved people’s ability to analyze new information and make a decision based on that information (Battleday 2015). Additionally, modafinil increased attentiveness, and a person’s ability to learn and recall information, though to a lesser degree than analyzing and decision making (Battleday 2015). Thus, modafinil is an excellent candidate for the fabled Limitless pill, one that, if created, could make people better at their jobs, more productive, and all around more intelligent.
So if modafinil is a certified brain enhancer, why isn't everyone taking it so we all can become more intelligent? First and foremost, modafinil is a prescription drug for narcolepsy, so not everyone can start taking it immediately. Furthermore, it will not help you learn a foreign language in a matter of days or master the stock market, though its ability to increase cognitive functioning and improve learning is undeniable. There is also the issue of unknown side effects of modafinil, as adderall and ritalin were originally thought to have no real negative side effects only for us to discover this was not the case. Additionally, a separate review of modafinil research found that some of the studies did not have a normalized method for observing negative side effects and found the sample populations to be lacking in both size and diversity (Nicholson 2015).
There is still hope however, the exact mechanism of how modafinil increases alertness and learning capability is still unknown. If neuroscientists are able to uncover this pathway, then there is a possibility that they could isolate the driving force behind the heightened learning ability and enhance it, fine tuning modafinil into a real “smart drug,” one whose sole purpose is for learning.
However, there is one thing that modafinil is unable to do that the Limitless pill seemed capable of accomplishing, the ability to increase creativity. No study on the effects of modafinil have shown any increases in creativity; yet there is an alternative. Some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have turned to microdosing psychedelics in order to boost their creativity and change the way the thinking about an idea or product. By altering the way the brain works, these people are able to think more imaginatively and innovate within their respective industries. Of course, hallucinogenic drugs have side effects as well. While microdosing is considered safe overall, it is not recommended for people with anxiety or, if they are actually consuming the psychedelic mushrooms, people with gastrointestinal issues.
A combination of modafinil, a dopamine reuptake inhibitor and a microdose of psychedelics in a pill right now would most likely have dangerous side effects. With some advancements in neuroscience and pharmaceuticals, this combination could stimulate creativity and boost alertness and memory formation, allowing scientists to come closer to creating the mythical NZT-48 pill. It may be awhile before NZT-48 hits the shelves at your local pharmacy but the precursors are already there. With more research and testing, taking a bonafide smart drug could very well become a staple of your daily routine, right after your morning coffee.
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Battleday, Ruairidh & Brem, Anna-Katharine. (2015). Modafinil for cognitive neuroenhancement in healthy non-sleep-deprived subjects: A systematic review. European neuropsychopharmacology : the journal of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology. 25. 10.1016/j.euroneuro.2015.07.028.
Cunha, John P. “Common Side Effects of Adderall (Amphetamine, Dextroamphetamine Mixed Salts) Drug Center.” RxList, 2017, www.rxlist.com/adderall-side-effects-drug-center.htm
Glatter, Robert. “LSD Microdosing: The New Job Enhancer In Silicon Valley And Beyond?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 30 Nov. 2015, www.forbes.com/sites/robertglatter/2015/11/27/lsd-microdosing-the-new-job-enhancer-in-silicon-valley-and-beyond/#7b394b8d188a.
Kolker, Robert. “The Real Limitless Drug Isn't Just for Lifehackers Anymore.” NYMag.com, 2013, nymag.com/news/intelligencer/modafinil-2013-4/.
Mammoser, Gigen, “The Benefits, Risks with ‘Microdosing’.” Healthline, 1 May 2017, https://www.healthline.com/health-news/the-benefits-risks-with-microdosing#1
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Schwartz, Casey. “Generation Adderall.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 Oct. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/10/16/magazine/generation-adderall-addiction.html.
“What Are Nootropics? - Guide to Nootropic Brain Supplements.” NooMind, 26 May 2018, www.noomind.org/nootropics-faq/
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