3 min read | Library

The Science Behind the Best Cognitive-Enhancement Drugs

Wendy Whitehead

Reading Time: 3 minutes


Not so long ago, the notion o a ‘drug user’ would have had absolutely, categorically, negative and repulsive meaning. Most of us would probably think of a person all draped in rags, living in filth, and resorting to crime just to fuel a hellish habit that they will probably never escape from.

However, this idea has been steadily dying out in the modern era, with the emergence and spread of a new kind of ‘drug’: the medicines and supplements that enhance our brains instead of ruining our bodies.

The new ‘drug culture’ is no longer focused on running away from reality, but on improving our performance at work, or at university. These mental boosters are at an all time high in their popularity and sales, which you can read more about at this webpage. Well, you likely already know what they are called and how to get them – but how much do you know about how they work? Today we take a look at the actual scientific background of some of the top-rated aids employed by the ‘mind hackers’.

Mental boosters are at an all time high in their popularity and sales.

Amphetamine and dextroamphetamine

These two substances are commonly found under the commercial name ‘Adderall’, and looking at official records from the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration), it has only one legally approved purpose: to be used in treatment of  Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Perhaps stemming from this initial idea, it has been steadily employed by biohackers, students, and people working at highly stressful jobs as a study helper and focus booster. That is not surprising, considering that a brain afflicted with ADHD is biologically different than a regular one, and requires genuine chemical treatment. You can learn more about that here: https://qz.com/914046/proof-that-adhd-is-a-brain-disorder-the-brains-of-those-with-adhd-are-smaller-than-the-rest-of-the-population/

So how does Adderall work? Large studies conducted in the previous few years have found that it helps boost our long-term conscious memory, meaning the part of our memory capacity that helps us explicitly remember past events with accuracy. It is worth noting that this is not the same as procedural or implicit memory (the proverbial one that helps you remember how to ride a bike). There is also some belief that it might help with things like fluency and planning, although the evidence is not really conclusive.

However, a word of warning: Adderall is known to result in addiction if used a lot, and features a collection of nasty side effects. These include sweating, nausea, impaired sleep (or total lack of sleep), weight loss, anxiety attacks, and reduced libido. Moreover, associations have been made between Adderall and a heightened risk of heart attacks and psychosis disorders.


Methylphenidate is better known under the name of ‘Ritalin’. It is an extremely popular drug, and people predominantly take it in order to help themselves stay awake, improve their focus, and boost their memory. This has made it a favourite among the student population.

Just like amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, Ritalin is approved by the FDA and is used to treat ADHD. In a healthy adult, a small amount of methylphenidate will boost working memory and overall cognitive abilities, which has made it one of the go-to nootropics for the general population.

There has also been evidence of it helping maintain concentration for longer periods of time in those people who have suffered some kind of traumatic head injury, although it does not improve overall memory in these groups.

However, in higher doses, it had the exact opposite effect: It impaired people’s focus and their cognitive performance, and young people (especially teenagers) have been found to be extremely sensitive to it, with long-term use potentially impairing the plasticity of their brains.

Regardless of age, side effects include nausea, weakening of appetite, weight loss, sweating bouts, and blurred vision (hence posing a safety hazard in traffic and other situations).


Modafinil, which is also known as Provigil, is yet another legal medicine approved by the FDA. In that context, it is used primarily in order to treat narcolepsy. If you are wondering about this condition and its mechanics, you can get a good basic grasp of it here

In a healthy person, it has similar effects, which earned it the status of a smart drug: It enhances mental functions such as recognising visual patterns, improves reaction time, boosts motivation, and helps people feel more alert overall.

Although it has no noticeable effect on one’s mood, it does share the side effect of Ritalin – reducing plasticity of young brains with long-term exposure.


Creatine has, at least so far, been tested and studied primarily in the context of treating patients who suffer from Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. When combined with other relevant forms of therapy, it was shown to be a promising way to combat the characteristic cognitive decline.

This has made it a rising star among sleep-deprived adults searching for new brain improving pills. People use it to improve their mental function and boost performance on hard tasks that require sharp focus.

As of now, known side effects include anxiety (when used in large doses), gastrointestinal problems, and (unlike all the previous ones on our list), it causes weight gain.


Finally, Piracetam is one of the most popular brain enhancers out there. It is a nootropic of the racetam class, and people use it to improve their concentration, memory, and learning by enhancing the flow of blood into the brain.

Ironically, this popular drug has been researched rather little. It was found to help reduce body twitches in people with the rare myoclonus epilepsy, and had minor benefits to patients who suffered brain injury or stroke. It is mostly known as an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medicine. For a more academic look at piracetam, check out this piece of research: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20166767

It is important that you consult your doctor before taking any drugs.

As to side effects, most people tolerate Piracetam well, although some have demonstrated an allergy to it. It has also been shown to cause anxiety, nervousness, and to impair balance and create problems with coordination.

Wendy Whitehead worked as a teaching assistant at two special needs schools in London before embarking on a different career as a marketing consultant. 

DISCLAIMER –  Some of our contents and links are sponsored. Psychreg is not responsible for the contents of external websites. This site also contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Psychreg is mainly for information purposes only. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice, nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on this website. Read our full disclaimer.

We run a directory of mental health service providers.