Smart Pills: Would You Try Them?

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You have probably heard those estimates from scientists that we only use between 10 and 20 percent of our brain.  Has science now made it possible for us to use much more that from the mere consumption of a pill?

In case you haven’t heard, there are now a number of what are being called “smart pills” or “smart drugs,”  and they have garnered a great deal of attention lately. Everything from stimulants such as modafinil to amphetamines (known by the brand name Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin) has become available.  According to news reports, students who begin taking these drugs to improve their cognitive performance in college continue to take them in their professional lives.

If you have seen the film “Limitless,” where a man is literally transformed into a super-thinking human by taking a (fictitious) drug, then you have a small idea about how these drugs are supposed to work. Of course, unlike the film, you won’t learn to play the piano like a pro in three days, and you probably won’t write a best-selling novel in less than a week, but those who use them  claim that they really do feel like a super computer.

We really should be asking ourselves, however, if these smart pills are all they are cracked up to be. Are they safe? What exactly can these pills do for us or not do for us? Do they really make us smarter, or are we simply able to concentrate for longer periods of time?


Let’s take a look at these so-called smart pills.

First, although smart pills will improve your focus, they won’t make you smarter. For some people, these are abstract concepts, but there is no doubt that there is a kind of grey area between knowledge and how the brain works. Being able to think about things that are not immediately stimulating your senses is the very fundamental of abstraction. The prefrontal cortex at the front of our brain is what helps us to think in abstract (such as the future, even if that future is just minutes away) terms. Our prefrontal cortex makes these thoughts about abstract concepts by making little pyramidal cells. These little pyramids start feeding each other, and they keep each other going by firing off little neurons. They can keep each other firing off, even when there is no more information coming in from the environment to stimulate themselves. When we get stressed or tired, chemical influences occur that disconnect those circuits.  This is where things like nicotine and caffeine restore function to those circuits.

So taking smart drugs will keep those neurons firing and exciting one another, but it won’t turn you into Einstein.

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