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.”