April 12, 2008
Scientists Personally Use Cognitive Enhancer Drugs

The science journal Nature asked its readers to take an online survey of cognitive enhancing drug use. 1400 responded and 20% reported using drugs for brain enhancement with methylphenidate (Ritalin) the most popular followed by modafinil (Provigil to reduce sleepiness).

For those who choose to use, methylphenidate was the most popular: 62% of users reported taking it. 44% reported taking modafinil, and 15% said they had taken beta blockers such as propanolol, revealing an overlap between drugs. 80 respondents specified other drugs that they were taking. The most common of these was adderall, an amphetamine similar to methylphenidate. But there were also reports of centrophenoxine, piractem, dexedrine and various alternative medicines such as ginkgo and omega-3 fatty acids.

The most popular reason for taking the drugs was to improve concentration. Improving focus for a specific task (admittedly difficult to distinguish from concentration) ranked a close second and counteracting jet lag ranked fourth, behind 'other' which received a few interesting reasons, such as “party”, “house cleaning” and “to actually see if there was any validity to the afore-mentioned article”.

The propranolol (sold as Inderal) is a beta blocker which suppresses flight-or-flight stress reactions. Some musicians use beta blockers for performances. Though their primary use is to lower high blood pressure. It is also used in lower doses against anxiety.

The willingness of scientific researchers to use currently available drugs as cognitive enhancers suggests that these drugs might really work to improve mental performance. It also shows that these people who do competitive intellectually difficult work look for ways to get an edge.

Ritalin for faster computer chip design, less buggy software development, and more optimized mechanical designs? Ritalin for brainstorming marketing strategies? Anyone tried it for intellectual work?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 April 12 11:05 PM  Brain Enhancement

wcw said at April 12, 2008 11:55 PM:

Ritalin's rep from what I hear is, speed. Amphetamines worked for Erdős, so I can't knock them in all cases -- but the amphetamine enthusiasts (read: speed freaks and related junkies) I have known have been anything but productive. I'd avoid it.

Provigil, by contrast, a friend uses. He's a physicist, who developed an imbalance in his 20s. Some very odd drugs now regulate that, but they make him sleepy. When he needs to do physics, he takes modafinil and works. A supremely addictive personality, he nevertheless only uses the drug as intended, never addictively or recreationally. Small sample size, but that one I'd give a thumbs up.

If there were something out there I really thought would make me smarter, I'd use it. Neither of these drugs seems to: the one has the stimulant effect on focus, the other keeps you awake. As neither is an issue for me, neither appeals.

anon said at April 13, 2008 9:32 AM:

this is not surprising as it has been my experience a good number of college students take ritalin and amphetamine off-prescription while writing papers and during midterm/exam weeks.

Kurt9 said at April 13, 2008 10:10 AM:

I took the Nature survey about this. I have no problem with the use of cognitive enhancement on general principle. However, I do not and will not take any of the compounds that were mentioned because I believe they have potential for long-term side effects. In other words, these compounds are bad for you.

A much more sensible approach is to take anti-oxidants and general anti-aging supplements such as Reveratrol, CoQ-10, Melatonin and the like in order to improve your general capabilities. This is the approach that I take.

Faruq Arshad said at April 13, 2008 12:13 PM:

What you forget is that many of these compounds have a negative effect on you. For example, Aniracetam, might improve cognitive abilities,but the price you pay is that you become less emotional,and more like Spock from Star Trek. Also, it tkaes many months for any increase in IQ to show. Might as well wait until you can genetically enginner yourself to raise your iq,if that ever becomes possible.

Faruq Arshad said at April 13, 2008 12:15 PM:

Abut Erdos using amphetamines. Isn't it true that drugs like adderall destroy dopaminergic neurones? Or is that just an urban legend?

rsilvetz said at April 13, 2008 12:17 PM:

phosphatidyl-serine also has a good long term rep in terms of improving mental flexibility and concentration

Bob Badour said at April 13, 2008 8:35 PM:

Propranolol is also good for avoiding migraines and reducing the effects of chronic stress. It's contraindicated for people with asthma and potentially anaphylactic allergies.

Unconditioned Mind (sometimes) said at April 14, 2008 12:22 AM:

Those stimulants are the wrong path. I have not tried them because I know that drinking coffee in large amounts does more harm than good in the long run. But the main obstacle for scientific thinking, is the weakening of short term memory, not lack of stimulation. If your short term memory is declining, then regardless of how creative you are, your work will be devastated, because you will not be able to read well or even think well. It turns out that pollution (combined with genetic factors) is causing a national epidemic of thyroid and adrenal failure that is not noticed because it is not life-threatening, but at least 10 % or even 20 % of the population over the age of 40 have been suffering from slowing metabolic rates due to thyroid and adrenal failure, resulting weak memory and cognitive functioning. The new medical guidelines allow doctors to prescribe thyroid and adrenal supplements for these borderline cases. In my experience, thyroid supplements worked very well in restoring my short term memory (thanks to a good doctor who prescribed the right combination of supplements), but when I traveled to another place, the new doctor decided not to prescribe the same thing and now my memory is bad:)

Once the temperature of your brain drops below 97.8 F (the normal temperature is 98.6 F), then your mental functioning is weakened and the manifestation is at least on surface neurological (acethycholine functioning slows down at lower temperatures), and conversely, once the brain temperature is over 98 F, then the mind works well.

Separately, there are many acethylcholine supplements you can get at the vitamin store. Choline is also good, but causes gastrointestinal problems if taken without food. Choline is best taken in small amounts in several meals per day to spread it in time. Neuroantioxidants can also be great.

One important thing is that stress (cortisol spike) can kill brain cells and destroy parts of the brain. But at the same time, these neurons can actually re-grow. Some research indicated that certain antidepressants miraculously cause brain cells to re-grow. Not all antidepressants have this effect, and some of them are bad, and so do your own research before going to a psychologist to ask for antidepressants (I have not taken any prescription medication other than thyroid medication.)

Faruq Arshad said at April 14, 2008 5:28 AM:

Can anyone tell me if drugs used to treat ADD,like Adderall are neurotoxic? Because I read somewhere that they permanently destroy the neurones that produce dopamine.

Dale said at April 14, 2008 6:01 AM:

Personally, I have a little experience with Ritalin. I had an unused prescription from a family member that I took to college with me. I used perhaps a dozen pills (sometimes in half doses) over the course of completing my MEE degree. It helped a great deal at times where I needed to be able to concentrate for hours longer than I'd have been able to normally. The experience includes a noticeably raised heart rate, the inability to sleep for 8-12 hours after ingestion, dehydration, and most importantly - superhuman focus.

Modafinil is a drug that I have researched quite a bit and would have no problem using on as needed basis.

David said at April 14, 2008 10:33 AM:

I've been taking propranolol for years for public speaking. One 10 mg. tablet prevents shaky hands, trembling voice, and so on. I have asthma but don't find it aggravated by taking propranolol at this low dose.

inquire said at April 14, 2008 11:54 AM:

I loves me about 1 - 2mg of dexedrine when i do homework (i.e. producing large quantities of written work). When you're working, studying, writing, reading, attending classes, marking papers, and all the other things that come up, energy and motivation don't always coincide with necessity.

Dexedrine is the last resort, I rely daily on Vega Whole Food meal replacement (all vegan, this stuff is pure gold), complex multi-vitamins, and other supplements as a base with carefully monitored doses of caffeine for acute wakefulness (ie. one or two espresso a day) and then in crunch times a few mg of dexedrine to get through. I find its an excellent combination for great performance when used wisely and in moderation. As well, regular exercise helps, but is not always available when mixed with all the other obligations.

Academic doping is only going to be come more and more prevalent as the availability of the relevant technologies proceeds and the relevant gains increase. I would refer you to "None So Blind" by Joe Haldeman as a good fiction example of where we are likely headed.

Lono said at April 15, 2008 10:43 AM:

I have experimented with both Ritalin and the nutritional supplement Ginkgo bilbo (as well as many different psychoactive substances in college)

I found Ritalin (I have ADD but I tried someone else's prescription) to cause super-focus - really to the point of distraction - and it gave me the very odd side effect of agrophobia(!)

(which was even more odd considering I have a very high tolerance for dealing with new places, people, or situations)

I would definately never ever use Ritalin as an aid in cognitive enhancement - and there is a growing body of evidence it is quite toxic to the body.

Ginkgo Bilbo, on the other hand, significantly increased my short term memory and concentration - however after weeks of using it I begin to have the feeling of sandpaper rubbing against my brain - (think of it like fingernails on a chalkboard) - at least once every couple of days.

I know of no one else who has had this side effect as most users seem to report very little or zero side effects to this nutritional aid.

I am interested in trying Provigil in the future for very specific uses- as when I must keep concentration up for an extended period - but I would not imagine that it would be wise to use it regularly as I woulde expect inflammation to increase proportionally with sleep deprivation.

In general I found psychedelics to be interesting - however they so severely alter consiousness as to make serious objective study imposible while under the influence (much like alcohol)

(and they are severely illegal in many countries which negatively influences any user experience with them)

I also believe long term, chronic, use of any psychedelic substance will likely lead to memory and concentration issues and should be avoided.

averros said at April 16, 2008 3:42 AM:

> Can anyone tell me if drugs used to treat ADD,like Adderall are neurotoxic? Because I read somewhere that they permanently destroy the
> neurones that produce dopamine.

This is a mangled echo of the notorious report about MDMA (Extasy) killing dopamine neurons; the so-called "researchers" (funded by NIDA and DEA) later admitted that they gave monkeys huge doses of methamphetamine instead of MDMA because of "mislabeled bottles". Which is, to anyone who has a clue about standard lab procedures, is akin to "dog ate my homework".

The most pronounced effect of prolonged use of amphetamines is rotting teeth - because of chronically dry mouth. Meth at large doses and with prolonged use can cause psychosis. And, of course, any psychoactive substances may aggravate existing mental problems.

PatrickH said at April 16, 2008 8:08 AM:

Modafinil doesn't seem to affect my sleep particularly, so I'm not sure about the inflammation problem mentioned above. What it does do is take me through the down periods in my work day, enabling me to just keep going without the nods, the head droops, even the faint nausea that can hit me sometimes in the early afternoon. It's really a good aid for getting through backlogs, doing cleanup work, organizing things, and even interacting with people. It lends what I call an "appollonian" clarity to the mind, as if your vision seems to sharpen, your mind's ability to think clearly increases.

I have used speedier stuff in a work context, and it just doesn't do the job. If I get started on something when the speed kicks in, then I can keep going on that thing for hours. But then, inevitably, my thoughts start to narrow, to become hyper-focused ("to the point of distraction" as someone said above), rendering my productivity moot, destroying my ability to think creatively or strategically, and causing me to get mired in some nano-level sub-sub-sub point of whatever project I'm working on. Speed is useless, even counterproductive.

None of that happens with modafinil. It just clears the mind, and allows focus to be sustained. Thoughts are not constrained by any amphetimoid straitjacket, there's no hype and crash, just good relaxed clarity. Modafinil works, and well. And doesn't seem to have any addictive push behind it either. Just take it when needed, and let it do its thing.

I just can't wait till the next generation comes out.

Lono said at April 16, 2008 10:11 AM:



Well I was mostly worried about those who use Modafinil at the expense of a normal 7-8 hour sleep period - but if you say it doesn't disrupt this normal sleep pattern - as speed does - then that is good news indeed!

I too am excited about the next generation of these substances - although I do not know what other benefit they might bring over what you currently say it provides you.


I really don't know why you think the demonization of MDMA is related to the body of evidence that some ADD/ADHD drugs are toxic to the body - but despite the US govt's sloppy work in the area of illegal drug research - I do believe studies have suggested that MDMA can cause an autoimmune reaction that can kill cells in the brain.

This is unlike say LSD - which despite sloppy US govt. testing - has been cleared of causing any physiological dammage to the Human body (although even sporadic use can lead to PTSD in people)

Vince said at April 21, 2008 5:30 PM:

Does Provigil (Modafinil) show up on a random drug screen? How about Ritalin? I would like to take one of the two to study for a promotional exam at work. I have a hard time concentrating when I study. I've tried to use the library quite room with no distractions and it works well but my mind still wonders.

APPLE said at July 4, 2008 12:41 AM:


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