Saturday, March 26, 2011

Smart Drugs? No, Just Quicker at Being Stupid

Update: A review of an array of "smart drugs" from a company that actually sells them.
A brief description of one instance of Provigil use from a Times reporter
Why Smart Drugs Don't Work Like NZT

What are smart drugs? Pills that are supposed to enhance a person's cognitive abilities in some way. Anything from Ritalin to Amphetamines to Provigil might qualify, as well as a wide range of lesser known "nootropics."

These pills are not only popular among university students, but also , truck drivers, and fast-paced professionals pushing every synapse to its limit. They can enhance attention, prolong attention span, help keep the mind on topic. All very important when facing a deadline for a research paper, a big work project, or when cramming for an exam.

In one sense, advanced societies run on smart drugs. Western societies embraced coffee, tea, and chocolate as quickly as they could -- and significant battles were fought over the rights to market these early smart drugs.

Fast forward to today, and the "stimulant smart drugs" are being pumped onto the markets -- both legal and illegal -- at prodigious rates. But newer, more advanced generations of smart drugs may be on the horizon.

This Al Fin posting from 2007 is still one of the best summaries of smart drug research I have found. Here is a more recent survey of the field from Gizmodo. Some of the newer drugs enhance attention, some enhance memory, some may enhance creativity.

But what about other approaches to getting smarter, besides drugs?
Instead of drugs, the first brain boosters to channel creativity could be electromagnetic devices designed to enhance cognitive skills. One fascinating proposal comes from Allan Snyder, director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney in Australia. He theorizes that autistic savants derive their skills from an ability to access “privileged, less processed sensory information normally inhibited from conscious awareness.” For normal people, tapping that sensory well might lead to deeply buried creative riches. To test the idea, Snyder and colleagues exposed subjects to low-frequency magnetic pulses (the technology is called transcranial magnetic brain stimulation, or TMS) that suppressed part of their brain function. The researchers found that the subjects acquired savantlike skills, including the ability to render more detailed, naturalistic art. _Discover
Electromagnetic stimulation of the brain probably has a great future ahead of it. But caution is always wise, when working in and around the brain.

All of these drugs -- past, present, and future generation -- are relative sledge-hammers compared to the intricate workings of the human brain. But the real reason smart drugs won't work like "NZT" (from the movie "Limitless") is because none of them can make the necessary changes in both function and structure, to turn mediocrity into brilliance.

But for some of us, not trying is not an option.

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