Workers in highly competitive environments, such as those in the financial services industry, medical students, and others, use so-called “smart drugs” to improve cognitive function.
Do they really function? Some of these medications, such dextroamphetamine and methylphenidate (also known as Ritalin), have been used successfully in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but less is known about how they affect persons without the illness.
Although users may claim to have improved cognitive function, it is less certain whether this equates to actual performance gains.
In a recent study, we looked at how three popular “smart drugs” affected cognitive function. Our findings indicate that the drugs may not be as smart as they seem. Although users displayed increased frenetic activity and cognitive strain, overall the medications reduced their productivity.
Our investigation focused on modafinil, dextroamphetamine, and methylphenidate. The major result of these medications is an increase in dopamine levels in the brain. These medications are noted for altering wakefulness, motivation, and attentiveness.
These drugs have proven to be a secure and reliable component of ADHD treatment. However, prior studies evaluating how these medications affected particular cognitive tasks in persons without ADHD had very conflicting results.
These earliest investigations into the cognitive effects of these stimulant medications focused on straightforward tasks like memorization of facts or simple spatial planning.
But in today’s cutthroat settings, integrating a wide variety of cognitive activities requires a very complicated and creative process. We wanted to know how these medications would impact more complex judgments because we are researchers who investigate how people make decisions and resolve difficult problems.
The knapsack problem
For our study, we gathered 40 healthy volunteers between the ages of 18 and 35, inviting them to participate in four testing sessions spread out over a four-week period.
The individual would get a placebo, methylphenidate, dextroamphetamine, or modafinil at each session. Because the trial was double-blinded, neither the subject nor the researcher were aware of which medication was being administered at any particular time.
A “Latin square” design, which alters the order of which medicines were administered at each session throughout the entire group of participants, was also used to balance the sessions.
Participants were given activities to complete following administration of the medication (or placebo). The major one was a challenging optimisation problem known as the “knapsack problem,” which is simple to describe but can be quite challenging to solve.
Participants in the task played a computer game that required them to visualize having a backpack or knapsack that could hold a specific amount of weight. The game then displayed ten or twelve distinct things, each of which was assigned a weight and a monetary value.
The assignment was to decide which goods to put in the bag in order to maximize the contents’ worth while staying under the weight restriction.
The participants had four minutes to try out various item combinations before submitting their choice.
Participants had to complete eight distinct problems of this type, each presented twice, at five different levels of difficulty.
An illustration of optimizing a resource (dollar value) while subject to a restriction (weight cap) is the knapsack issue. In the real world, issues like this arise all the time, even when you go grocery shopping every week.
Computer scientists have also been quite interested in this type of problem and have worked hard to create effective methods to tackle it. It is unclear, though, how people handle these kinds of difficult activities.
Greater effort, worse outcomes
Overall, participants completed the problems substantially more slowly after taking the medicines. Before submitting their choices, they spent a lot more time and attempted a lot more item combinations.
However, when we examined how closely their choices’ values matched the highest conceivable values, we discovered they performed less well. Additionally, they discovered the ideal mixture on average less frequently.
Thus, participants under the influence of drugs put up substantially more effort in terms of time and combinations, but their actual production fell greatly. Their ultimate performance was not enhanced by the additional activity.
Additionally, when we examined individual performance, we discovered that those who performed better than average during their placebo session were far more likely to experience negative side effects when taking the medications than those who performed less well during the placebo session.
What does this imply regarding the use of “smart drugs” to improve performance?
Those who take these medications to try to get an advantage at work or in their academics without having ADHD, particularly those who are already strong performers, may have unforeseen consequences. There are no short cuts to increasing cognition because it is a complex process.