smart drugs

Smart Drugs: A Complex Web of Medication-Induced Cognitive Enhancement

It doesn’t seem too long ago that when people needed a little bit of oomph at work or at school, one or two cups of some good ‘ol joe (that’s coffee for you non-caffeine fiends out there) would be enough. In extreme cases, some Red Bull or something similar. But as technology and pharmaceutical products evolve, caffeine doesn’t seem enough for some people.

Enter what’s called “smart drugs”

In a nutshell, these would often (but not always) be prescription medication designed to treat other illnesses — usually psychological. But unlike other drugs that are taken recreationally and are addictive, smart drugs are more commonly used to increase focus and mental performance. Healthline defines smart drugs as “natural or synthetic substances that can be taken to improve mental performance in healthy people.” While they are typically prescription medication — meaning that pharmacies will not dispense them to people without a doctor’s scrip — they are easily found from various sellers online. Others are supplements that are supported by few or flimsy studies, while some are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Best known smart drugs

It might surprise you that there are a number of smart drugs available in the market today. Many have similar or related uses, but all of them are off-label used as stimulants for studying or high-pressure jobs. We compiled information from various sources (Quartz and Healthline, among others) to come up with a more well-rounded list.

Modafinil (Provigil)

One of the most popular smart drugs out there. The drug has FDA approval, but for the treatment of narcolepsy, or excessive daytime sleepiness. It is popular among smart drug users because of the perceived benefits it gives them, which include improved alertness, better reaction time, increased mental function, and higher motivation. Studies done with the drug also show participants gaining better attention, improved executive functions, and a higher capacity for learning.

However, the there are some understandable concerns regarding the use of smart drugs, since excessive use has shown to result in lower plasticity in brains and can damage users’ memory.


NOT FDA approved, but still widely used in a number of circles. Users report that they are less anxious and are more creative while on the drug. The use of this drug by those who take it is also legitimized by a study in 2012 that showed that adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) reported better cognitive function. This is significant, as MCI is a type of illness that can progress into dementia; thus, people who suffer from MCI are more prone to experience “senior moments”, making them more forgetful, experience problems with language, judgement or planning.

Amphetamine and dextroamphetamine (Adderall)

This drug on the other hand, is FDA approved. However, there is ONE important caveat — it is only approved as prescription medication ONLY for people who suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or AD-HD.

Users who take this outside the prescription guidelines do so to help them study and keep sharp and alert. Many who work in a high-pressure environment also take Adderall.

One major pitfall from taking this is that it does become addictive over time. There are also a number of side-effects that include anxiety, weight loss, sweating, sleeplessness, lack of interest in sex, and nausea. Frequent users also put themselves at risk for psychosis, heart attacks, and in some cases, sudden death.

Methylphenidate (Ritalin)

This is another drug that has secured FDA approval, but again for those diagnosed with AD-HD. However, casual users report that they have better focus and memory while on the drug, and they stay awake longer too. This makes it a prime temptation for students. Various studies have shown that patients with traumatic brain injury demonstrate increased and longer concentration, while others who received low doses also reported better working memory and cognitive performance. High doses, on the other hand, actually impaired cognitive function.

As with many of these drugs, there is the real possibility for serious side effects to the brain, such as reduced plasticity and degraded memory function. Other side effects may include nervousness, sweating, blurred vision, reduced appetite, weight loss, and nausea.

Donepezil (Aricept)

Another drug that has secured FDA approval, but for treatment of Alzheimer’s. Studies have shown that it helped participants better remember how to do things like riding a bike, or swimming or walking — what is called procedural memory. Smart drug users also report that they have better memory after taking the drug and they are better at solving or completing complex tasks. There are a number of serious side effects associated with its use, but some more common side effects include vomiting, sleep problems, and vomiting.

L-Deprenyl (Selegiline hydrochloride)

While side effects of this drug include a sudden spike in blood pressure (when taken in high doses or when combined with cheese and a number of other food items), and is dangerous when combined with other medication, many people still use L-Deprenyl because it not only puts them in a better mood, but also helps them plan things better and improves their attention and alertness.

The ethics and problems behind smart drugs

Obviously use of such drugs come at a price, not only to users’ health. A report from the Financial Times quotes a Duke University policy that lists the use of smart drugs as a form of cheating. There are also ethical issues, such as users having an unfair advantage over competitors — similar to the use of steroids and performance enhancing drugs in sports. This particular argument is prevalent in technology companies, where many professionals feel the need for an extra edge in a high-pressure and fast-paced environment.

Unfortunately, many users, who do not view smart drug use as unfair or cheating, have resorted to pretending to have AD-HD just to get access to the drugs, according to a report from EurekAlert. This poses problems not only for them, but also to doctors, who are not only required to be more vigilant in screening patients, but also to patients who actually have AD-HD — as they would be much more at risk to be suspected of faking their symptoms, or be denied proper care because of others’ abuse of the system.

Techcrunch also interviewed an unnamed executive who said he swears by smart drugs and takes the regularly, as he works 20-hour days. This can be problematic, not only due to the ethical issues smart drug use comes with, or because of his drug of choice’s side effects, but also on the toll his body will take due to being forced to work constantly for 20 hours almost every day.

Other experts, on the other hand, such as the one interviewed by the Washington Post, view the smart drug phenomenon as more hype than reality. “There’s a sizable demand, but the hype around efficacy far exceeds available evidence,” the publication quotes Murali Doraiswamy as saying. Doraiswamy has led several studies at Duke University Health System on smart drugs and has served as consultant to both the FDA and private companies on the issue cognitive enhancers.

All in all, the issues and problems that come with smart drug use are many and complicated. It falls to both private organizations to police their own members on the use of such drugs, as well as regulators, who need to catch up to know more about the alternative uses of these medications, and issue the appropriate rules for their use. The studies on such drugs is also still young, which is why for many, the personal benefits of its use far outweigh any possible risks to their health or wellbeing. It would also be a prudent plan of action to monitor studies and research on this front, as this kind of medical technology does have immense potential, when you think of it objectively.

Improving productivity without smart drugs

There are a number of alternatives to keeping productive without resorting to the use of smart drugs. This way, you avoid the common pitfalls of smart drug use, as well as the associated side effects and other possible ethical issues.

Some, like neurostimulation, or transcranial direct current stimulation, sometimes look like stuff out of science fiction novels, but the science is very young so there is great potential still waiting to be discovered. A report from Hppy says that the treatment can improve patients’ accuracy, performance, learning, and working memory. Another treatment, which involves patients lying down in a hyperbaric chamber and breathing in pressurized 100% oxygen, is still in its infancy, but the potential for a boost to cognitive function and memory holds a lot of promise.

But there is also the option of doing things the good old fashioned way. Having a proper diet, good time management, having healthy sleeping and exercise habits. Some people have forgotten the value of these things, due to how accustomed we’ve become to our high-paced, fast lifestyle. Productivity is king, never mind what it costs us health-wise and quality of life-wise. But when you think of it, it’s very doable and possible. And the effects are much more proven and beneficial, especially in the long term.

Finally, another (more effective and efficient) way would be to partner with the right organization and service to help make operations more productive and efficient. for example, has the tools that help make sure that tasks and other things are managed efficiently for you. Through the use of AI-powered technology and a team of expert and experienced individuals, has the means to help standardize workflows and enhance organization.

Some of these tools include smart time tracking. Besides the basic function of making administrative time keeping more efficient, this tool also provides data on how time is spent in the workplace. This data can be used to track the progress of certain projects, as well as assess how long certain tasks took before they were accomplished. In true fashion, there are several configurations available so you can customize things based on your organization’s needs. The dashboard is another important feature, as this allows for easier and more efficient oversight of your organization. No need for tedious repetitive report generation, as all the data you need will be easily and quickly accessible.

To see how these tools can work for your business, sign up and start your free trial here.


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