University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Brain doping does not work

Pills with psychoactive effects are not a short-cut to improving exam and research results. Only one, well-known drug has these properties, others might not work in your favour, says neuroscientist

A currently much discussed drug, Ritalin, is used as a form of brain doping, but it is not at all a sure-fire way to improve grades or research results. This is according to Milena Penkowa. Professor at the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Copenhagen, who recently received the prestigious EliteForsk-2009 award.

»Ritalin generally makes you more alert. You can handle more, especially in respect to repetitive or simple tasks, like driving. If it’s a complex task, it doesn’t make you better, and in some cases does quite the opposite,« she says.

Gross exaggerations

Caffeine is the only proven ‘brain-booster’, she explains.

»The other drugs do not work. In the best case scenarios they wake you up a little or do no harm, in the worst cases they can ruin a term for a student, especially if someone thinks they can boost their way through the last, demanding, year of study by popping smart pills tha they have heard give you extra energy, memory and intelligence.«

That brain doping can actually make someone more intelligent is pure sensationalism. There is no effective drug that improves the intelligence of a healthy human being, according to Milena Penkowa, who urges students to exercise caution in popping pills.

Amphetamine only boosts the ego

Ritalin is essentially a development of amphetamine, created at the end of World War II – among other things, to keep pilots awake for long periods of time.

Accounts of people taking amphetamine with fantastic effects are, however, to be taken lightly:

»When you take amphetamine, you feel like you are fantastic, but studies show that people don’t actually become better at solving complex tasks. People in fact make more mistakes on the drug than off it,« says Penkowa.

»The difference is that after taking amphetamine, people think wrong. The drug induces a mix of megalomania and detachment from reality,« she says and elaborates: »Studies indicate that the longer you have used a drug, the more frequently mistakes will occur, so if people intend to use stimulants until their final year of study, things will derail.«

Cosmetic neurology

Manipulating the brain is the dream of a kind of neurological cosmetics.

Aside from Ritalin, Concerta (methylphenidat), and Amphetamine, there are drugs like Modafinil, that in terms of effect resemble Ritalin. There is also Aricept (Donepezil), Reminyl (Galantamin) and Exelon (Rivastigmin), all developed for patients with Alzheimer’s Disease, helping them retain information and improve memory.

The drug improves the memory of patients with Alzheimer’s, but doesn’t work in the same way for people who aren’t ill. This demonstrates exactly what the problem with popping pills is, and why it does not work, says Milena Penkowa.

»A pill can alter the brain to function normally if you’re ill and your brain isn’t working as it should. If your brain is already functioning properly, it is not going to have the same supplementary effect.«

Milena Penkowa thinks it is naïve to believe that you can enhance the brain with drugs designed for sick people. It is a question of thinking things through.

»What’s the point for people, who are already badly organised, to take stimulants to stay awake for another hour – they will still say yes to the wrong things!«

Brain doping – a scientist’s wet dream

It is a scientist’s dream to make money with brain stimulants. These dreams have become almost life-like, after studies conducted by the scientific papers Science and Nature in 2008 pointed to great potential for brain doping.

»With the current focus, there is no doubt that certain branches of research are working on the pill, that would enhance normal (healthy) people, so it could very well be that it will appear soon. It’s impossible to say when, but it could happen« says Penkowa.

Milena Penkowa points out that doctors are sworn to only help the sick, not people who are well.

Testing for brain doping is ridiculous

She brushes off the suggestion that doping tests should be made before exams. »It’s naïve to talk about doping controls – there is just no drug to test for at the moment,« she says.

As in the case with athletes, who tend to be diagnosed with asthma more than the rest of the population, »drug tests at exams would just lead to students suddenly ‘developing’ the disease necessary to get the medicine, so it would not have the desired effect.« Penkowa believes.

Forget natural medicine

So don your trainers, eat well, and exercise the brain.

Revision is still the best brain doping we have for exams, and studying is a form of brain enhancement in itself. Your lifestyle is the best way to naturally improve brain function in a manner that is both real and measurable, explains Milena Penkowa.

And what about natural medicine, like Gingko-Beloba – an extract from the leaves of a Japanese tree, supposed to improve memory?

»Gingko-beloba has been through testing, and has been proven to have certain side effects, including the inability to have children, as it affects the movement of sperm cells. It should say so on the packets in the first place, but for some reason it doesn’t. It is not impossible that Gingko-Beloba has effects on our ability to observe, comprehend, learn and recognise, but in any case, there are side effects. Natural medicine? I’d rather play Russian Roulette,« says Milena Penkowa.

There is nothing new under the sun:

»More coffee, tea and coke is drunk in the world than water, and there could be a reason for this,« Milena Penkowa wraps up.