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How smart are smart drugs?

Rosey Gardiner-Earl

22nd January 2024

Research suggests that so-called ‘smart drugs’ increase the time taken to complete tasks in cognitively healthy people and do not lead to better performance

Nootropics or ‘smart drugs’ are a group of substances whose action is believed to lead to some form of cognitive enhancement. Drugs such as methylphenidate (well known as Ritalin) often prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be life-changing for those taking them to manage a condition. However, these drugs are sometimes taken by those without a diagnosis in the belief that the drug will lead to an increase in focus and cognitive performance. Experts in the field agree that taking drugs that are not prescribed for you is very unsafe and may not lead to the improvement in performance that many might be seeking.

Recent research findings by Bowman et al (2023) used what is known as the ‘knapsack optimisation problem’, a task designed to mimic the complex decisions humans make in everyday life. The knapsack problem involves presenting participants with a virtual empty bag along with items of different values (in monetary terms e.g. £3) and weights (in kg) that could be placed inside. To succeed participants must choose the combination of items with the greatest possible value whilst staying under the weight limit. Researchers varied the difficulty of the task by varying the values, weights, number of items, and weight limit.

On four test days, held at least one week apart, participants were given a white pill. This either contained a dose of a smart drug (these included different drugs used to treat ADHD and a drug used to treat narcolepsy) or a placebo. All of the active drugs are known to increase dopamine, an important chemical known to increase motivation. It was expected that the increased dopamine levels would increase individuals’ motivation levels to complete the task and therefore lead to enhanced performance.

The results were perhaps surprising to those who may have anticipated a favourable effect of the smart drugs:

  • None of the smart drugs favourably affected the participants’ chances of successfully solving the knapsack problem, in all three drug conditions the rate of success was lower compared to the placebo.
  • Participants spent longer working on solutions whilst on the smart drugs, in comparison to the placebo. This suggests that their motivation levels were high, however, increased time spent on the task did not lead to a greater success rate at solving the problem.
  • Smart drugs impacted some of the participants’ performances negatively. For example, those who scored above average in the placebo condition tended to fall below average whilst on one of the smart drugs and this was due to the drug making their attempts to solve the knapsack problem less systematic.
  • The implications of this fascinating study are very clear, healthy people who take smart drugs for cognitive gain are likely to work much harder to solve a problem, but without any benefit. For people who are already good at solving problems, taking such drugs could impact performance negatively.

Questions you might like to consider following this blog:

Which experimental design was used in the study by Bowman et al?

Why do you think this design was selected over another?

Why do you think researchers waited a week between each of the four test days?

Why do you think there was a placebo condition?

Find the original article by Bowman et al (use the link to the BPS site below to find it) and write the reference in the correct format.

How could you use your knowledge of Social Influence to influence the behaviour of University students who may be considering taking smart drugs to enhance their performance?

Rosey Gardiner-Earl

Rosey has 15 years of experience teaching Psychology and has worked as both a Subject and Senior Leader in school and large sixth form setting. Rosey is also an experienced A level Psychology examiner.

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