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What’s Up With This “Smart Pill”?


WRITTEN BY: Neurosurgery
Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

Let’s play out a little scenario. You take a “smart pill.” Who knows where it came from. All of a sudden, you are able to learn and analyze at a superhuman rate. You start speaking an array of languages, become a master pianist, and rise to the top of the financial world. Things eventually go south, but who really cares if you’re the smartest person alive.

If this story sounds remotely familiar, that’s because it is. The 2011 movie, Limitless, focuses on a drug that enables a person to simply take a pill and become a genius, to the likes of which nobody has even seen. While, this is merely fiction, if you do a search for “limitless pill” online, you’ll see that it’s anything but a fantasy. Retailers are advertising a multitude of these pills, and the choices actually seem, limitless.

But, there is a drug that new research has found to actually improve cognitive thinking and brain power. It’s called modafinil, also known by its brand name Provigil®. However, don’t get your hopes up about becoming actor Bradley Cooper and solving some of the world’s most complex problems. It’s not going to happen. But, can it actually make some people smarter?

What is Modafinil?

Originally approved by the FDA in 1998 for the treatment of narcolepsy, modafinil has become better known as a nootropic, or a “smart drug.” A recent study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found that the drug can improve what researchers call executive function, or the ability to sift through new information and make plans based on it. Modafinil was also found to increase the ability to pay attention, and learn and remember. However, the research also discovered that the drug didn’t consistently help participants on simple tests of attention, working memory — how the brain temporarily stores information — and found it had little effect on creativity or the ability to multitask.

But despite all this research, little is known about how the drug actually works, according Michael Zemaitis, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy. “Although it has some characteristics of other stimulants like Ritalin® and amphetamine, there are distinct differences” says Dr. Zemaitis. “It appears to affect virtually every major neurotransmitter system in the brain, but as to why or how this happens, that is still difficult to say.” Recent studies also suggest that modafinil may interact with orexins, which are neuropeptides that promote arousal and wakefulness.

There is another big caveat. And we do mean big. Modafinil is not approved for the purpose of boosting brain power. The decision to regulate this drug for patients wanting or needing its benefits is up to government regulatory bodies, like the FDA. So, for now, your doctor won’t be able to write you a prescription for modafinil simply to boost your brain power. Instead, just eat your broccoli. It’s high in choline, an important nutrient known for its role in brain development. Or, keep pretending to be Bradley Cooper…it can’t hurt to try.

neurosurgery

Neurosurgery

UPMC is ranked among the top hospitals in the nation for neurosurgical care by U.S. News & World Report. In addition, UPMC is one of the few medical centers in the U.S. – and throughout the world – with expertise in the full array of surgical options for brain and spine conditions. Our world-renowned experts are committed to finding the best treatment approach for each patient, maximizing the benefits of surgery while minimizing the risks. Read More