What Every Parent Needs to Know About “Smart Drugs”

What the Hype’s All About

  • They really might just make you smarter: There could be long-term side effects (see below), but in many cases, scientists have noticed that smart drugs really do improve memory, mental energy, learning ability and alertness, and actually decrease signs of depression.
  • It’s a common drug for treating sleep disorders: At least one type of smart drug called Modafinil is used to treat sleep disorders, and was designed to "offer targeted, more powerful mental sharpening," according to a 2007 Times article. Other smart drugs are legitimately tested drugs used for other conditions like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and ADD, so many students believe they’re proven to be safe.
  • Common behavioral drugs deliver a similar fix: Common drugs like Ridalin and Adderall that are normally used to help attention deficit disorders are becoming more popular with students who do not have behavioral issues but who want increased clarity, focus and energy. Adderall even has a new name on college campuses, "Addy," and helps with marathon study sessions.
  • It offers the benefits of caffeine, without the jittery side effects: Like caffeine, the more sophisticated smart drugs give the mind an instant boost, and subjects moved from task to task very naturally, never losing their focus. But unlike caffeine and similar stimulants, the subjects did not experience negative side effects like feeling jittery or anxious, or even high or like their hearts were racing.
  • They’re readily available: Many smart drugs can be purchased online, from foreign pharmacies, or in health and wellness stores. Illegally acquired or sold prescriptions are also popular methods of getting smart drugs, especially among students.
  • The stigma for smart drugs isn’t really there: Our society has attached a stigma to certain supplements and drugs — even behavioral drugs and medication to relieve depression — but the effects of smart drugs basically turn us into smarter, more confident and more successful versions of ourselves. The positive effects make society more accepting of smart drugs and smart drug users.
  • It may help you lose weight: This Huffington Post writer found that one side effect of smart drugs was losing weight, so the appeal strengthens: "you become cleverer and thinner."

The Other Side

  • It may be illegal: Students often use and sell these drugs widely, circulating them around college campuses or even high schools, but doing so without a prescription is a felony.
  • Smart drugs are most effective for people with brain injuries or disease: While smart drugs may improve your memory, they’re most effective when given to people with conditions like Parkinson’s or Alzheimers, not otherwise healthy-minded individuals.
  • They’re being taken as long-term drugs, without long-term side effects being known: While research has found minimal immediate side effects resulting from taking smart drugs, scientists aren’t sure of the long-term effects of these supplements. And since they’re the type of drug that will most likely be used as a long-term cognitive enhancer, there is substantial debate about the safety of the drugs.
  • They’re already very popular in the U.S.: The 2007 Times article points to a University of Michigan study that discovered 8% of undergraduates admitted to illegally taking prescription drugs for cognitive and learning enhancement, and the number was expected to increase over the next few years at least.
  • There’s a big ethics debate: Although there’s no serious stigma attached to smart drugs, some do wonder about its ethics. Like athletes taking steroids, are students who take smart drugs at a better, unfair advantage than those who don’t?
  • The pharmaceutical industry is ready to mass market these drugs: As more people use and talk about smart drugs, the pharmaceutical industry is positioning itself to corner the market and create smart drugs used only for the purpose of increasing cognition and memory for healthy-minded individuals, instead of relying on "multitasking" Parkinson’s or sleep disorder drugs to do the trick. This move would mean a more open discussion and perhaps more accepted — and widespread — usage of smart drugs, perhaps leading to smart drug abuse.

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