Is it smart to take a smart drug?

Are you smart enough?

Keeping up in our frantic world of super busyness can be mentally draining.

What if you could ramp up your cognitive prowess to think faster, solve problems more quickly and store more RAM in your memory banks?

What difference would that make to your role as a teacher a student, a manager or a leader?

Would it give you that cognitive edge you’ve been seeking to outwit, outsmart and outperform your competitors?

Would it make you “Limitless” like Eddie Morra?

The answer might be “Be careful what you ask for.”

Smart drugs have been around for a while. The best known is Modafinil, first introduced as a stimulant drug to help those with narcolepsy and other significant sleep disorders to improve attention and wakefulness. The idea of popping a pill to make us smarter soon followed and on first glance does sound rather attractive.

Today around 90% of people using smart drugs such as Modafinil are healthy individuals seeking cognitive advancement. In the States one in five students report using Modafinil to boost their academic performance.

But is this the Lance Armstrong effect whereby the fear of not taking a smart pill might result in you appearing well, less smart? What if everyone takes a smart pill – what then? Does that mean we all automatically all become Super Heroes of Powerful Thought?

Meanwhile back in the Death Star Canteen debate rages over whether taking a smart pill will guarantee that we will always get a dry tray and that others will know who we are.

Warning: This video clip contains a lot of swearing. Please don’t watch if you finding swearing offensive.


In 2012 the Canadian Medical Association published a report recommending physicians should not prescribe these drugs to healthy individuals because of the uncertainty around their benefits and harms and limited health care resources.

A number of studies around the world have also questioned the usefulness of Modafinil as a neuroenhancer. One such study in Malaysia found that healthy people who took Modafinil had a slower reaction time, took longer to complete a given task and made the same number of mistakes as those in the control group who didn’t take the drug.

Not much cognitive advantage there.

So are we wasting our time?

Perhaps, perhaps not.

A recent overview by Battleday and Brem (Berkeley and Oxford) of Modafinil’s actions in non-sleep deprived individuals looked at 24 placebo controlled studies and found that it can improve performance in healthy individuals, but the authors cautioned their findings saying far more work has to be done and there is a need for a dramatic improvement in how the effects of these types of drugs are analysed.

What they showed was taking a single dose of Modafinil will produce some improvement in our executive functions of planning, attention and problems solving, but the results were inconsistent and variable, even for the same person. There are no long-term studies that have examined the effect of taking this drug over a longer period of time.

The question we need to ask is, if we are going to continue to seek ways to enhance how well our brain works using smart drugs (which seems likely) doesn’t it make sense to ensure the hardware in our skull is optimised first?

High Performance Thinking starts with creating a brain that is fit and healthy and only then developing a higher level of function through our conscious choice of focus. Our brain is massively plastic, which means we can harness that natural neural super power to up skill our thinking; to be more flexible and agile with our thoughts, to open our mind to possibility and use our imagination to fire up new insights and innovation.

When fast foods first became more widely available they were hugely appealing because of their accessibility, consistency of product, low cost and taste. Today that appeal remains while the planet reels from the consequence of too many of us overindulging in low quality foods now recognised as potentially harmful to health and cognition.

It’s the same with smart drugs. We have no idea of the longer-term effects of using these drugs, while the advertising makes it appear that the sky is the limit.

The smart move today has to be to use what we know works, is safe and is free from side effects.

Let’s give our natural neurobiology a chance.

Have you tried a cognitive enhancer?

What are your thoughts about the use of smart drugs?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.




Husain M, Mehta MA. Cognitive enhancement by drugs in health and disease. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 2011;15(1):28-36. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2010.11.002.

Researchers from the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal (IRCM) led by Dr. Eric Racine Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

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