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Fa­mous for its use in treat­ing chil­dren with At­ten­tion Deficit Hy­per­ac­tiv­ity Dis­or­der (ADHD), Ritalin and its de­riv­a­tives also seem to help con­cen­tra­tion and fo­cus in adults with the con­di­tion. It prob­a­bly does some­thing for healthy peo­ple too, but – guess what? – the ev­i­dence isn’t there to prove it.


In­flam­ma­tion, the process by which body cells go on the at­tack, is in­creas­ingly im­pli­cated in brain-based con­di­tions such as de­pres­sion, mem­ory loss and be­havioural dis­or­ders.

Alzheimer’s dis­ease may also be due to in­flam­ma­tion, at least in part. Ev­i­dence is ac­cu­mu­lat­ing that the amy­loid plaques as­so­ci­ated with the dis­ease are not them­selves its cause; rather, it is the brain’s in­flam­ma­tory re­ac­tion to the plaques that kills off brain cells. This prob­a­bly ex­plains why low-dose aspirin – fa­mous for its an­ti­in­flam­ma­tory prop­er­ties – seems to stave off cog­ni­tive de­cline (as well as heart at­tacks and many forms of can­cer).

Aspirin is not rec­om­mended for healthy peo­ple by med­i­cal au­thor­i­ties, but cur­rent ev­i­dence makes a low-dose daily aspirin pill a ra­tio­nal choice.


De­pres­sion is not just a mood dis­or­der, it has pro­found ef­fects on cog­ni­tion gen­er­ally – blur­ring mem­ory, slow­ing thought and dis­tort­ing per­cep­tion. Most antidepressants, when they work, bring these things back to nor­mal and a few – Bupro­prion, Prozac, re­box­e­tine and SNRIs (sero­tonin-nore­pinephrinere­up­take in­hibitors) – may make peo­ple brighter than nor­mal, even if they are not de­pressed. How­ever, antidepressants also tend to have side ef­fects, so un­less you ac­tu­ally are de­pressed, tak­ing them prob­a­bly isn’t a great idea.


Modafinil is a pre­scrip­tion drug used to treat nar­colepsy, but it’s look­ing as though it might be a gen­eral brain sharp­ener. Re­searchers at Ox­ford Univer­sity and Har­vard Med­i­cal School (where up to a quar­ter of stu­dents re­port tak­ing the drug to help their work) re­viewed 24 stud­ies of Modafinil and con­cluded that it im­proves think­ing skills and helps with planning, de­ci­sion­mak­ing, flex­i­bil­ity, learn­ing, mem­ory and cre­ativ­ity, with very lit­tle down­side.

Prof Guy Good­win, pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Col­lege of Neu­ropsy­chophar­ma­col­ogy (ECNP), said: “It seems to be the first real ex­am­ple of a ‘smart drug’, which can gen­uinely help, for ex­am­ple, with exam prepa­ra­tion.”

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