A recent online poll by Nature magazine of 1,400 readers—mainly scientists—found that one in five admitted to using stimulants to boost brain power and 80 percent said they thought such drug use should be permitted. That poll was unscientific because it did not involve a random sample, but it still suggests a widespread acceptance of "cognitive enhancement" by pharmaceutical means, at least amongst scientists interested enough to respond to an online survey. A study also found that 4 percent of students—and on some campuses, up to a whopping 25 percent—admitted to using drugs to improve academic performance.
For people with attention-deficit disorder (ADD), stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall (a form of amphetamine) clearly improve intellectual performance. But do they boost brainpower for people without ADD—and if so, is such cognitive enhancement an appropriate use of these drugs? How helpful—or potentially harmful—is it? And what do we know about how these stimulants affect different types of thinking—like creativity—anyway?
"There are plenty of laboratory studies that suggest that stimulants are somewhat helpful for most people," says Martha Farah, Ph.D., director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. But, she adds, the discussions of cognitive enhancement in the press have tended to imply that the science is more advanced than it is, and that the drugs are better than they are.
"We don't know how helpful they are if you are trying to learn a language or master some new area of study or write the great American novel," she says.
The Goldilocks principle
Stimulants do seem to improve learning and memory, but their effectiveness varies depending on the type of test involved and the timing of the use of the drug relative to when the test of performance occurs. Oddly enough, the smarter you are, the less benefit these drugs seem to have.
In several studies, people who usually scored low on such tests improved the most, while the scores of those who usually excelled declined slightly.
This may be because of the way the drugs affect dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is critically involved in motivation, learning and pleasure. Dopamine seems to have a "sweet spot." Too much dopamine is associated with paranoia and psychosis, while too little is linked to lack of pleasure, interest in learning and motivation.
"It's like Goldilocks and the three bears—you want just the right amount, not too much or too little," says Farah. Those who already perform well might benefit from a small boost. But, take it too far, and performance will decline.
Those who are on the low end, however, have room to improve quite a lot before they reach the point at which increasing dopamine causes problems, rather than improvement.
Unfortunately, the fact that stimulants raise dopamine levels is associated with a risk for addiction. Although most users do not become addicted, about 10 to 20 percent of those who take stimulants for non-medical reasons will develop addiction problems.
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