Smart people make drugs

"Smart Drugs": How Smart Can They Make Us?

Sometimes learning can be a chore. According to the US Foreign Service Institute, we need around 480 hours to be able to speak French, Spanish or Italian only at a basic level - that's more than three months if we spend five hours every day studying. When playing the piano, depending on our practice, it can take several months before we play the first small pieces without errors.

How nice would it not be to be able to speed up the process a little. A little pill that turns us into piano virtuosos within a few days, with which we can master languages ​​after a few hours and which does not allow us to forget any detail of what we have learned. Can there be such a pill one day?

At least in the film the "super drug" already exists. "Do you know that we can only use 20 percent of our brain?" Says the drug dealer to the desperate writer Eddie Morra in the US film "Limitless" from 2011. "This gives you access to one hundred percent," says he puts one of the white pills on the table in front of him. With the help of the fictional drug NZT-48, Morra finishes his book in four days, earns millions through day trading on the stock market and can even revive his relationship with his ex-girlfriend.


A drug like NZT-48 does not yet exist in real life. So-called "intelligent drugs", which are supposed to improve performance and learning abilities, have been sold - often illegally - for years. These include stimulants such as Modafinil, amphetamines such as Adderall or the drug methylphenidate used against attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), better known under the name Ritalin, which is being used more and more by students around the world for exam preparation.

According to neurobiologists, however, these remedies have little to do with a real increase in intelligence. Instead of permanently expanding your perception, they should only help you to concentrate better and to be "more awake" - just like caffeine in coffee does. Learning a textbook by heart in one night or mastering a language within a few days is far from possible. There is also a risk of becoming dependent and taking too much of the medication, warn health experts. Side effects such as headaches or anxiety disorders cannot be ruled out either.

"Shape" the brain

Despite these difficulties, some neuroscientists are already researching ways to improve our brains even further. The brain should be "shaped" in such a way that we can remember things better, have more control over our emotions, are more creative and can solve complex problems.

For this purpose, certain areas of the brain could be stimulated with the help of magnetic fields, as is already done in isolated cases in the treatment of epilepsy or schizophrenia - in combination with drugs to improve performance.

Headset for memory

The Californian start-up Humm, for example, developed the prototype of a "headset" called the "Edge", which looks like a black headband and is supposed to improve memory and attention. Small electrical impulses are used to stimulate activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that plays a central role in decision-making and short-term memory. Users should wear the band for 15 minutes and then improve their working memory for 90 minutes.

Information is temporarily stored in working memory, for example while reading or writing. How much information can be stored in this way is usually very limited. According to the manufacturers, stimulation via the headset can help increase the amount of information in working memory and draw attention to what you are currently doing. However, side effects such as temporary visual disturbances cannot be ruled out.

Modafinil miracle drug?

The situation is similar with the drug Modafinil, which some consider to be a promising basis for a possible NZT-48 "super drug". Modafinil is officially used as a drug for narcolepsy. It is now also used by the US Air Force to keep pilots alert and focused. Astronauts from the International Space Station also take the drug against the feeling of jet lag.

In addition, Modafinil can improve the ability to absorb new information and store it better, as well as increase awareness - not without side effects and only subject to prescription. Modafinil does not turn you into a "superhuman". In contrast to the NZT-48, the drug could even have a negative effect on creativity, according to a study.

LSD as an alternative?

As an alternative to being more creative, some people have started giving themselves tiny doses of LSD. LSD increases the brain's neuroplasticity and its ability to make new connections. Scientists warn of the dangerous potential for addiction and the risk of psychosis.

Dangerous side effects

A combination of Modafinil and LSD would theoretically cover many of the effects of NZT-48, but according to some experts it would most likely come with dangerous side effects. After all, the brain is extremely complex and sensitive. If a drug improves the abilities of a certain part of the perception, others can be neglected and even damaged, fear neurologists.

Anyone who uses medication to direct their full attention to an activity also restricts the involvement of other brain regions in the thought process. The question of how far we can improve our thinking and perception without permanently damaging our brain will probably play an important role in the development of new "intelligent" drugs.

Only for certain tasks

In fact, it will be some time before there is such a thing as a super intelligence drug. Developments tend to point in the direction that certain substances can improve certain functions for certain tasks: perhaps for a limited time write and read a little faster, a little more attention, a faster working memory for certain activities.

All this, however, with the risk of side effects and dependency and - compared to the fictional pill NZT-48 - probably without improvements for interpersonal relationships, without benefits for the (re) enlivening of the partnership and without making us all Einstein's.

Fortunately, there is already an alternative for improving brain performance that works without chemical substances and electrical impulses from the outside: physical and mental exercise, enough sleep, not too much stress. These factors have been shown to reduce depression and the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Sport and language learning may be arduous, but in terms of their effects on the brain, they are far ahead of any drug. (Jakob Pallinger, December 27, 2020)