An inquisitive reader studying psychology wrote for comments on a new drug called modafinil. Dr. Stephen Mason, Ph.D., wonders if this is a genuine “smart pill” able to enhance human brain function? He said his interest was piqued by a book by David Adam, The Genius Within, which examines the fledgling neuroscience dubbed cognitive enhancement.
Adam claimed he used himself as a guinea pig for smart pills and electrical brain stimulation in order to improve his IQ scores and cheat his way into MENSA.
This is all well and good, but the British Guardian revealed that Mr. Adam, with no “magic pill” or any other cognitive enhancement, got into MENSA on his first try. This guy may be smart, but he’s not smart enough to realize that his “drug trial” he used to promote modafinil was bogus since he, presumably, he would have passed the test anyway.
Adam did get better scores after re-taking the MENSA entrance exam under the influence of modafinil.
The gist of cognitive enhancement is to “change the way the brain and the mind work” and “make it better, sharper, more focused, and more intelligent.”
All this sounds great, on the surface: one pill makes you smarter, à la “Alice in Wonderland.”
In fact, smart pills, called nootropics, have been around for a few years already. If you want to get technical about it, “The first synthetic nootropic drug was developed in the 1960s by Romanian psychologist and chemist Corneliu E. Giurgea to treat people suffering from motion sickness.”
Then came piracetam, a smart drug shown to benefit mental performance, information processing, and memory consolidation.
In November 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first smart pill – Abilify MyCite – that tracks whether or not a patient has taken medication. The pill contains a drug that acts as an ingestible sensor which activates on contact with stomach fluid to detect when the pill has been ingested.
What makes the pill really smart is that it transmits this information about the stomach’s contents back to a wearable patch which, in turn, sends the patient information to an app on a paired smartphone.
Under HIPAA, after a patient consents, this collected data can be shared remotely with the patient’s health professional and caregiver teams by means of a web portal.
Abilify MyCite (aripiprazole tablets with sensor) was developed to monitor patients with schizophrenia as well as “acute treatment of manic and mixed episodes associated with bipolar I disorder and for use as an add-on treatment for depression in adults.”
The FDA noted that, while the first new smart pill system can track a patient’s medication consumption, it has not been linked with an increased likeliness that patients stick better to their drug schedules.
Likewise, as pointed out in Cognitune, “taking a smart pill will not allow you to access information that you have not already learned.”
Sure, you can get those brain synapses snapping more briskly, but there’s no magic pill that can provide “instant learning” – yet.
Supplements for memory can be broken down into distinct categories, depending on what they do:
- Improve information recall
- Enhance focus, energy, creativity, and mood
The best way to go is natural, when considering popping a pill to get smarter faster. Synthetic solutions should usually be regarded as the choice of last resort rather than first thought.
The good news is that there are many natural, nootropic substances out there. Avoid unpleasant side effects by taking plant-based nutrients such as:
- Amino Acids such as Creatine, Acetyl-L-Carnitine, L-Theanine, L-Tyrosine, GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), and 5-HTP
- B Vitamins
- Choline (from Lecithin, DMAE, Choline Bitartrate, CDP-Choline – Citicoline, and Alpha GPC – Choline Alfoscerate)
- Fatty acids (from Omega-3 fish oil, Phosphatidylserine – PS -and
- Coconut Oil – MCT Oil)
- Ayurveda and traditional Chinese herbal medicines (such as Ashwagandha, Ginkgo Biloba, Bacopa Monnieri, Huperzine A, St. John’s Wort, Vinpocetine, Rhodiola Rosea, and Panax Ginseng
- Caffeine (taken in moderation)
Prescription ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) medications, including modafinil, Armodafinil, and Adderall are three of the strongest prescription drugs that keep patients awake and alert. Again, these drugs do not make people smarter or increase their IQs (intelligence quotients); they merely focus and energize the mind to increase individual mood and productivity.
Modafinil is classified as a eugeroic or wakefulness-promoting agent. Physicians prescribe is for narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea, and fatigue.
The FDA has not yet approved modafinil to treat ADHD, even as prescriptions for it are replacing those doctors previously ordered for Adderall. Modafinil is regarded as safer with fewer side effects.
Armodafinil (Nuvigil) and amphetamines (such as Adderall) can also enhance cognitive function but take their toll on other aspects of human health. Consider this list of a whopping 30 side effects linked to Adderall :
Nervousness, restlessness, excitability, irritability, agitation, dizziness, headache, fear, anxiety, agitation, tremor, weakness, blurred vision, sleep problems (insomnia), dry mouth or unpleasant taste in the mouth, diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, hair loss, loss of appetite, weight loss, loss of interest in sex, impotence, difficulty having an orgasm, increase blood pressure, increased heart rate, and heart palpitations.
The bottom line, it would seem is that modafinil is far from a true smart pill: it is little more than glorified No-Doze, prescribed by physicians who favor it, as an antipsychotic for schizophrenic patients or as an anti-fatigue agent for the healthy, due to its shorter list of known side effects:
“Modafinil is a waking drug prescribed to narcolepsy patients, but its usage among healthy individuals is increasing to enhance their alertness or to mitigate fatigue.”
Furthermore, “modafinil may be subject to abuse and addiction.”
Why on earth would anyone want to set themselves up for a modafinil addiction when there are plenty of natural remedies available to accomplish the same thing?
To return to the original question posed – is modafinil a genuine smart pill? – the answer is, simply stated, “No, it is not.”
It will, however, keep you awake long enough to cram for final exams. (Warning: taking modafinil regularly may promote insomnia and stress.)