It's estimated that over a million students in the U.S. misuse prescription drugs and stimulants to boost their attention span, memory, and alertness. But a new study suggests some of these drugs are detrimental to developing brains, causing long-term impairments to cognitive function.
As noted in the new study by Kimberly Urban and Wen-Jun Gao, "Cognitive enhancement is perhaps one of the most intriguing and controversial topics in neuroscience today." Indeed, a growing proportion of the population — especially students — are feeling increased pressure to take cognitive enhancing drugs.
"These individuals are facing more stringent college and graduate school acceptance criteria, limited job pools and an ever-increasing pressure to perform better and better if they hope to succeed," write Urban and Gao in their study, which now appears Frontiers In Systems Neuroscience.
Sadly, this group is most likely at risk for potential neurological consequences due to their still-developing brains.
Reduced Brain Plasticity
Many of these stimulants — which are part of a broader groups of enhancement drugs known as nootropics — are used illicitly and off label, and are often acquired via the black market. It now appears, however, that the short-term boost in mental performance comes at a cost to juveniles and adolescents, namely a long-term decrease in the brain plasticity required for task switching, future planning, and adaptive flexible behavior.
The authors looked at two stimulants in particular, methylphenidate and modafinil.
Sold as Ritalin and Concerta to treat ADHD, methylphenidate works by increasing the level of neurotransmitters in the nervous system. Trials on rats have shown that young, developing brains are particularly sensitive to methylphenidate. Low dosages can reduce nerve activity, working memory, and the ability to quickly switch between tasks and behaviors.
Modafinil, sold as Provigil, is prescribed for narcolepsy and other sleep disorders. It works by boosting levels of dopamine in between the synapses of brain nerve cells, which has the effect of enhancing memory and the ability to do math and other mental tasks. But research shows it has the same negative long-term effects as methylphenidate.
Other smart drugs, like the emerging class of ampakines (currently studied by the US military as a way to increase alertness in soldiers), aren't much better; they have the potential to over-excite the nervous system, damaging or efven killing nerve function.
More Work To Be Done
All this said, it's important to keep in mind that these findings are based on nonhuman animal studies. The effects of these drugs may vary among different species.
Secondly, the authors were not able to cite many other credible studies. This area of research is relatively newand research is sparse. Clearly, more work needs to be done.
As an aside, a recent study showed that mild electrical currents, which accelerate a number of cognitive functions, can introduce mental deficits in other areas.
Read the entire study at Frontiers In Systems Neuroscience: "Performance enhancement at the cost of potential brain plasticity: neural ramifications of nootropic drugs in the healthy developing brain."