Drugs that have been perceived to improve cognitive enhancement are colloquially known as study drugs, as these drugs are commonly known to be used by students to improve cognitive performance before an exam or a test, although some students use these drugs all-year round to improve performance. Athletes, CEO’s, entrepreneurs, academics, freelance writers and government employees have all been known to use study drugs or cognitive enhancing drugs in one manner or another.
The most well known drugs used for cognitive enhancement are Modafinil, Piracetam and Ritalin. This series of articles will discuss each in turn from a multiple of sources, anecdotal and from scientific studies, and come to a conclusion of when and how you should be taking these drugs if you have already brought them and intend to consume them.
This article will define cognitive enhancement simply as anything that increases the functioning or operation of any aspect of human cognition
Modafinil is commonly seen as the king of the cognitive enhancement drugs, with it being used most commonly around the university and the college campuses around the world due to its supposed benefits and renowned ease of use. It has also known to be used by notable businessmen, Silicon Valley CEO’s and notable authors and internet personalities: Joe Rogan, Tim Feriss and Dave Asprey are just some names that come to mind.
Modafinil is typically prescribed as a drug to treat those that suffer from narcolepsy, and other related sleep disorders such as shift worker sleep disorder. Modafinil is a eurogic drug that has been approved in America and Europe for treatment without any recognisable or long term side effects since its usage in the late 1970’s and early 1980s.
How does modafinil work?
The current research on modafinil is that we do not know how it currently works, although there are some competing theories and observations. Modafinil inhibits dopamine and noradrenaline reuptake transporters which causes an elevation in the amount of dopamine and noradrenaline that is available to be delivered to the cortex. Since modafinil promotes wakefulness it is natural to assume that the cellular effects of modafinil are those that lead to an increase in the typical pathways that promote the function of wakefulness, and there is some evidence for this. By inhibiting dopamine and noradrenaline reuptake levels, this is thought to increase arousal and wakefulness by increasing dopaminergic and adrenergic transmission, and by interacting with the orexin/ hypocretin axis (Minzenberg and Carter, 2008) Primarily the effects the arise from modafinil usage are due to modifications in neurotransmitters systems in the cortex, but similar modifications to the neurotransmitter systems has been reported in the hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, caudate and midbrain (Scoriels et al. (2013)
Does modafinil work?
According to the systematic review carried out by Battleday and Brem (2015) modafinil appears to improve multiple cognitive domains. As reported in study just cited, in simple psychometric assessments modafinil was seen to enhance cognitive function in executive function (primarily using incoming information to construct plans), attention, learning and memory. In more complex tasks, modafinil once again was seen to have shown increased cognitive benefits to attention, executive functions, learning and memory. There were no consistent negative consequences with modafinil usage, although these inconsistent negative aspects were linked with cognitive flexibility, i.e. shifting attention between tasks (note this is different than maintain concentration and attention on one task) (Battleday and Brem 2015). Importantly, in the simple psychometric tests, the performance of modafinil on cognitive functions was noticeable yet negligible, but on the more complex tasks the benefit of this drug were sizeable and substantial. This makes typical sense as enhanced cognitive abilities are not needed to be utilised in simple cognitive tasks.
Cognitive Enhancement Conceptual Confusion
In particular, when researching cognitive enhancement, I have noticed that there appears to be a type of conceptual confusion emerging as I watched Youtube videos, read interview transcripts and scientific publications as to what constituted cognitive enhancement. At first glance it appeared ironic that these conceptual confusions appeared within the scientific publications rather than other types of media, but on further reflection this is to be expected as the scientific publications are the only type of literature that are really attempting to answer the questions of what counts as cognitive enhancement and whether any studies have shown that cognitive enhancement has taken place in the presence of, say, modafinil or ritalin. The conceptual confusion in the scientific publications concerns what is meant by the term cognitive enhancement. If by cognitive enhancement you mean simply improving your cognitive skills, then this would include the typical attributes of cognition such as memory, attention, reasoning and so on. Modafinil certainly benefits these areas of cognition, especially in complex tasks as the studies briefly discussed have shown.
However, these scientific publications seem to miss the crucial aspect that makes modafinil so exciting: is its ability to make you enjoy the labour of work itself, which is not a cognitive function but a motivational and perseverance attribute. The anecdotal and empirical evidence of this point is ultimately overwhelming and these are the type of skills that are not rigorously tested in scientific experiments and under scientific conditions. I could give hundreds of examples but I will limit it to just two. As the author of Colombian vice article noted that he felt unusual pleasure in updating his usually dry boring spreadsheet that he typically finds a way of procrastinating rather than updating. On a Youtube video, the two protagonist taking modafinil for the first time had this massive surge of motivation throughout the day that induced behavioural changes in them, no longer were they jovial and looking to laugh, rather they had a sense of purpose “to do things” and work. One of these protagonists spent hours filling out job applications and sending out C.V’s – the type of gruelling, boring, dull work that he had been putting off for months. This type of enhancement, call it a prolonged focus, is not a component of cognition per se, i.e. memory, attention among others. To me this is a conceptual confusion within the definition of the criteria of positive cognitive enhancement. Personally, I would clearly consider this a type of cognitive enhancement, or at least a contextual cognitive enhancement – the kind of enhancement that allows you to optimise your focus in achieving to finish a task you’ve set out to complete.
To give an analogy, suppose you give a footballer a performance-enhancing drug and you want to judge his performance. The scientist when he writes his criteria in determining whether a footballer has enhanced his skills considers the following list: the skills and tricks that he can perform with a football, striking of the ball, ball control, “football intelligence” and physical abilities. So the obvious question would be can we devise an experiment that tests whether the performance of the footballer has improved after taking the performance-enhancing drug?
However, what happens if the benefit of this performance-enhancing drug is not so narrowly defined to include how he performs on the pitch with the ball and his intellectual capabilities, but also his physical performance? Obviously a footballer’s physical performance is extremely crucial to his performance and this backed up by the amount of physical conditioning that a professional footballer goes through. So, suppose I notice that before and after the drug that the footballer has increased his work-rate on the pitch. With a higher work rate, the footballer now completes more tasks on the pitch that he previously did not want to do, for example, he is more likely to defend when the opposition have the ball. There is a significant difference in the footballer’s behaviour on the pitch in regards to his focus, motivation and his attitude. Has the footballer increased his performance by taking the performance enhancing drug by improving his physical condition despite not having any improvement on his football skills and decision making? Clearly the answer is an overwhelming yes.
So what mistake has the scientist made? The mistake of the scientist that has caused the conceptual confusion is that they are focused solely on whether particular cognitive functions have improved rather than his performance throughout the match. They are looking at the footballer to perform certain measurable tasks rather than looking at his performance holistically outside the measurement and test centre.
When to take modafinil?
Modafinil is absurdly long lasting with a half-life of 15 hours and scientific studies have shown that it improves cognitive function, especially in complex tasks. Clearly the best time to take modafinil then is, depending on context (as always), is early in the morning – unless you are preparing to work all night, in which case take the drug later in the day – and on a day in which you are completing hard complex tasks where you need as much cognitive function and performance as possible. On the other hand, if you want to complete many mind-numbing boring repetitive tasks without procrastination then anecdotal evidence – since there have not been any scientific studies on this – suggests modafinil will greatly aid you in completing these tasks. Without any side effects recorded there almost seems no real particular reason not to take modafinil at the recommended dose (typically 100mg – 200m, and no more than 400mg in a day) whenever you want. throughout a week. However, erring on the side of caution, you may want to take a drug holiday from modafinil from time to time or whenever you start to fill some ill effects. The last word though is that modafinil has laid down the marker for improving cognitive enhancement.
Battleday, R.M. and Brem, A.K., 2015. Modafinil for cognitive neuroenhancement in healthy non-sleep-deprived subjects: a systematic review. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 25(11), pp.1865-1881.
Minzenberg, M.J., Carter, C.S., 2008. Modafinil: a review of neurochemical actions and effects on cognition. Neuropsychopharmacology 33, 1477–1502. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/sj. npp.1301534.
Scoriels, L., Jones, P.B., Sahakian, B.J., 2013. Modafinil effects on cognition and emotion in schizophrenia and its neurochemical modulation in the brain. Neuropharmacology 64, 168–184. http: //dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2012.07.011