Self-Experimentation with Cognitive Enhancers

April 27, 2009

The New Yorker has a very good article on self-experimenters — mostly college students — using cognitive enhancers, beyond the traditional caffine and NoDoz.  It’s unclear how many of these folks are quantifying their experiments, but they should be. A few excerpts:

The effects of piracetam on healthy volunteers have been studied even less than those of Adderall or modafinil. Most peer-reviewed studies focus on its effects on dementia, or on people who have suffered a seizure or a concussion. Many of the studies that look at other neurological effects were performed on rats and mice. Piracetam’s mechanisms of action are not understood, though it may increase levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. In 2008, a committee of the British Academy of Medical Sciences noted that many of the clinical trials of piracetam for dementia were methodologically flawed. Another published review of the available studies of the drug concluded that the evidence “does not support the use of piracetam in the treatment of people with dementia or cognitive impairment,” but suggested that further investigation might be warranted. I asked Seltzer if he thought he should wait for scientific ratification of piracetam. He laughed. “I don’t want to,” he said. “Because it’s working.”


Alex’s sense of who uses stimulants for so-called “nonmedical” purposes is borne out by two dozen or so scientific studies. In 2005, a team led by Sean Esteban McCabe, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Substance Abuse Research Center, reported that in the previous year 4.1 per cent of American undergraduates had taken prescription stimulants for off-label use; at one school, the figure was twenty-five per cent. Other researchers have found even higher rates: a 2002 study at a small college found that more than thirty-five per cent of the students had used prescription stimulants nonmedically in the previous year.


This winter, I spoke again with Alex, the Harvard graduate, and found that, after a break of several months, he had gone back to taking Adderall—a small dose every day. He felt that he was learning to use the drug in a more “disciplined” manner. Now, he said, it was less about staying up late to finish work he should have done earlier, and more “about staying focussed on work, which makes me want to work longer hours.” What employer would object to that?

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