The risks of cognitive enchantment

The New Yorker has a fantastic in-depth article about ‘cognitive enhancement’ that talks to some of the neuroscientists studying the effects and some of the mind tweakers who regularly pop pills to give themselves an edge.

One of the issues it touches on is whether cognitive enhancers really ‘enhance’ people, and there’s good evidence that for the highest achievers, the pills might not be of much benefit.

Even worse, it’s also likely that the amphetamine-based drugs (Ritalin, Adderall) could actually impair your performance even though you might feel as if you’ve had a mental boost.

Amphetamine has the effect of increasing focus, confidence and giving a euphoric feeling. Although the effects are less marked in the slow release amphetamines used for ADHD and appropriated for illicit mind tweaking, the effect is certainly still there.

What we do know, however, is that people with certain genotypes actually show a decrease in working memory performance when they take amphetamine.

And it turns out that these are the people most likely to already be at the high end of mental performance. This is from a classic study on the effect:

Amphetamine enhanced the efficiency of prefrontal cortex function assayed with functional MRI during a working memory task in subjects with the high enzyme activity val/val genotype [of the COMT gene], who presumably have relatively less prefrontal synaptic dopamine, at all levels of task difficulty.

In contrast, in subjects with the low activity met/met genotype who tend to have superior baseline prefrontal function, the drug had no effect on cortical efficiency at low-to-moderate working memory load and caused deterioration at high working memory load

In other words, it’s possible that high achievers might be popping stimulants, feeling like it boosts their performance, when in fact, it’s doing exactly the opposite.

The article explores more than just this area though, and is incredibly wide-ranging, looking at the neuroscience, the underground use of the drugs, legal aspects, new and current compounds, and so on.

It’s also one of the most interesting articles I’ve read on the subject for a while, which, for an area which attracts of lot of attention, has got to be a good thing.

Link to ‘The underground world of ‚Äúneuroenhancing‚Äù drugs’.

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