The New Yorker on the underground world of “neuroenhancing” drugs.

Margaret Talbot of The New Yorker wrote a piece about people who use old and new types of amphetamines to boost alertness and concentration.
Cephalon, the Provigil manufacturer, has publicly downplayed the idea that the drug can be used as a smart pill. In 2007, the company’s founder and C.E.O., Frank Baldino, Jr., told a reporter from the trade journal Pharmaceutical Executive, “I think if you’re tired, Provigil will keep you awake. If you’re not tired, it’s not going to do anything.” But Baldino may have been overly modest. Only a few studies have been done of Provigil’s effects on healthy, non-sleep-deprived volunteers, but those studies suggest that Provigil does provide an edge, at least for some kinds of challenges. In 2002, researchers at Cambridge University gave sixty healthy young male volunteers a battery of standard cognitive tests. One group received modafinil; the other got a placebo. The modafinil group performed better on several tasks, such as the “digit span” test, in which subjects are asked to repeat increasingly longer strings of numbers forward, then backward. They also did better in recognizing repeated visual patterns and on a spatial-planning challenge known as the Tower of London task. (It’s not nearly as fun as it sounds.) Writing in the journal Psychopharmacology, the study’s authors said the results suggested that “modafinil offers significant potential as a cognitive enhancer.”
Brain Gain: The underground world of “neuroenhancing” drugs


  1. Take L-glutamine pills and eat chocolate. It works wonders. The chocolate makes you a bit tubby, but the magnesium content is really good for your short term memory (although causes memory loss in large doses) and the caffeine keeps you sharp. The L-glutamine helps prevent muscle degeneration. Also be sure to eat protein an hour before any study.

  2. As someone who takes methvlin daily, I have a hard time understanding why this meme is freaking everybody out so bad.

  3. I would like to note that modafinil isn’t really an amphetamine, although I’m not qualified to tell why, aside from it not being a traditional stimulant, more of an ‘alertness aid’ (although those are bordering on marketing words).

  4. Speed isn’t a ‘meme.’ That’s a sophmoric perspective. Google ‘addictive behavior speed.’ Meditation, exercise, and a well-balanced diet enhance productivity and don’t reinforce substance abuse.

  5. i definitely have sponged off some of my roommates adderall when i have the need to be up for hours on end.

  6. The military has been using amphetamines and similar drugs for decades. Why is it big news now that they might actually help you remain alert? If a drugs benefits outweigh its potential drawbacks then why not make it available for use? Notice I said available…not freely available. Why not just require a doctor’s prescription for a lot of these enhancers….and ban them from competitions that could benefit from these types of enhancements. If there was a drug that enhanced perception, fine motor control and concentration wouldn’t you want your brain surgeon on a heavy dose before they opened up your skull?

  7. take L-Arginine about the same time you take the protein. since it increases blood flow. so you will feel a little more awake that with just the caffeine stim.

    excerpt from the arginine wiki
    “The benefits and functions attributed to oral ingestion of L-arginine include:

    * Precursor for the synthesis of nitric oxide (NO)
    * Stimulation of the release of growth hormone.
    * Improves immune function
    * Reduces healing time of injuries (particularly bone)
    * Quickens repair time of damaged tissue
    * Reduces risk of heart disease
    * Increases muscle mass
    * Reduces adipose tissue body fat
    * Helps improve insulin sensitivity
    * Helps decrease blood pressure
    * Alleviates male infertility, improving sperm production and motility
    * Increases circulation throughout the body, including the sex organs”

  8. “in 2008 Cephalon paid four hundred and twenty-five million dollars and pleaded guilty to a federal criminal charge relating to its promotion of off-label uses for Provigil and two other drugs.”

    The fine didn’t slow them down a bit. Nuvigil, the long-lasting version of Provigil, is coming soon to a pharmacy near you.

    The reporter’s conclusion:
    “Neuroenhancers don’t offer freedom. Rather, they facilitate a pinched, unromantic, grindingly efficient form of productivity.”

  9. I use racetams, myself. There are several “flavors,” available in bulk, which increase in potency, longevity, and cost as you upgrade to newer formulations.

    They really do work for me. But my neurochemistry isn’t your neurochemistry, so there aren’t any guarantees.

    I know that amphetamines and amphetamine-related compounds would work for me, too, for awhile at least. But there’s the expense, the legality, the whole bulb-burning-twice-as-bright-but-half-as-long thing, and the possibility of turning into Jim Carrey.

  10. As someone who had taken Adderall daily as presribed for a few months, then increasingly taken ridiculously large doses of Adderall as often as possible over a 3-year period, wreaking havoc on my personal and professional life, and is lucky to have stopped before killing myself or, even worse, someone else, I have an easy time understanding why this meme is freaking everybody out so bad.

  11. Read this article yesterday. Full of opinion, logical fallacies, and quotes from Wikipedia.

    Look at the section about Piracetam, then the Wikipedia article.

    Not that there is or isn’t a problem with these drugs, but at least tell us about it professionally.

  12. I just drink tap water, which, as an AP story yesterday suggests, has enough fun stuff in it to rival even the kinkiest of you pharmanauts:

    U.S. manufacturers, including major drugmakers, have legally released at least 271 million pounds of pharmaceuticals into waterways that often provide drinking water contamination the federal government has consistently overlooked, according to an Associated Press investigation.

    Hundreds of active pharmaceutical ingredients are used in a variety of manufacturing, including drugmaking: For example, lithium is used to make ceramics and treat bipolar disorder; nitroglycerin is a heart drug and also used in explosives; copper shows up in everything from pipes to contraceptives.

    Fuck yeah! I’ll take my lithium-nitroglycerin-copper combo over your wussy adderall anyday, anytime!

  13. I take piracetam an choline citrate. It helped me when I quit caffeine and nicotine. It may help my cognition, but not in nearly as noticeable a way as caffeine.
    @3 Maggie Koerth-Baker
    How long have you been taking Methylphenidate? What made you choose it over Amphetamine?

  14. I’ve been mail ordering Modafinil for years in the states. I use it when I am sleep deprived and have to function at a fairly high level. I’m an IT consultant, and this drug has pulled my nuts out of many a jam, or made tight project deadlines at the very least much more pleasant and manageable. It’s a very interesting substance that catabolizes the brain’s ‘fatigue toxins’ and gums up their receptors.

    This is a new class of drug, a Eugeroic (literally ‘Good Lift’)not an amphetamine. A few minutes after ingesting modafinil, you’re just not tired. Modafinil has very low toxicity, few drug interactions and almost no side effects. The only unwanted effect I notice is that it cranks up my libido to an almost distracting degree.

    Great stuff – truly better living through creative pharmacology. Google around if you’re in the states – there are many safe, semi-legal ways to order this.

  15. I’ve been taking provigil to help with delayed sleep phase syndrome since early 2007. I haven’t noticed it helping my memory at all, but it definitely helps me stay awake and has over time greatly helped me maintain a more ‘normal’ internal clock. I still have times where I can’t fall asleep til 4 AM, but a few months ago the doctor gave me Lunesta to help with that (Ambien doesn’t seem to do anything to me at all), and if I don’t take that til it’s too late, at least the provigil allows me to function somewhat normally throughout the day. And now I make it in to work between 7 and 8:15 probably…. 90% of the time, and by 8:45 99% of the time. (and the once every couple of months I don’t, there’s usually a secondary reason, like a power outage or forgetting to turn on my alarm)

    When I first started it I decided to blog the experience, but the overabundance of energy that prompted that only lasted the first couple of days, so it didn’t make for terribly interesting writing or reading, so I stopped… but I did keep the domain and the original entries:

  16. The new yorker hasn’t made it to my mailbox yet, so I haven’t read the article yet, but I take provigil for what is loosely described as ADD although I like to call it Attention Surplus Disorder. ( you see there are all these things I would like to be able to ignore but can’t, and my train of thought is more like a dozen shriners weaving around in those little cars )

    Provigil is wonderful stuff, when I take it I can still free associate, but don’t continually forget what I am doing, or why I am walking to the kitchen , or is it the bathroom , or am I answering the door? I swear, sometimes it’s like being that guy in Memento but without the tattoos.

    Anyway, provigil isn’t like amphetamines or ritalin which gives you a shot-out-of-a-big-cannon-on-roller-skates-blindfolded-or-maybe-holding-a-bowl-of-goldfish feeling of not quite being in control. It just lets you stay one one thing a little longer.

  17. When I was in high school and college I took Dexedrine. As all classes at my high school were taught at the college level (and academically, college was a summer camp compared to high school) I’d save up my prescription for use when finals came around. On the third day of no sleep it really helped out….
    I didn’t take it when I didn’t have to due to studies around the time linking long term exposure to largish quantities of amphetamines to parkinsons and other nerve disorders, but missed it when I didn’t take it.
    It always felt like being on an intellectual high. It was like driving a prius, and then hopping into a Ferrari F1 car. The amount of data I could intake, interpret, reorganize, and output was incredible….
    But that compared to my normal, ADD and distractable, self.

  18. I know of total boneheads who took ritalin and a few other prescription drugs before taking the New York State Bar exam, and passed despite their lethargic study habits. While I didn’t, and had to take it again a few months later up in Albany (I passed, btw). The story has a happy ending, though, as now we’re all jobless and up to our necks in student loan debt:)

  19. i’ve been taking Provigil for four years now (prescription due to narcolepsy) and I can tell you that, for me, it is indeed a brain-enhancing drug. i can now concentrate at will, and i don’t fall asleep while driving anymore. this pill has literally saved my life, probably a dozen times over.

    i don’t know what it would do to someone without narcolepsy, the effects on such a person would vary greatly depending on the person, i’m betting, but for me it’s pulled me right out of the rut narcolepsy put me into and onto a level i would consider normal. before i started taking it i would be in the middle of a SENTENCE and forget what I was talking about, or who i was talking to, for example. like a forced short attention span. now, I can concentrate for 8 hours straight on a single thing if I want. It’s heaven.

    the only side effect for me is a headache if i don’t wait long enough between my first and second pill of the day. I only take two a day and if i take them too close together i can get a headache.

  20. I know of total boneheads who took ritalin and a few other prescription drugs before taking the New York State Bar exam, and passed despite their lethargic study habits.

    So my lawyer either has to take drugs to perform or is underperforming when she’s representing me in court? Perhaps we should give less emphasis to test scores.

  21. While I was riding on BART last week I overheard a lengthy conversation between two Cal Berkeley students about how the use of Adderall had significantly improved their performance on finals.

    Too bad not all Cal students have access to (or are able to afford) the kinds of doctors who will prescribe cognitive enhancers that aren’t needed.

    Are neuro-enhancement drugs the new “white privilege?”

  22. I went to a small liberal arts school in the northeast, and heard about a lot of adderall usage by the students there.

    Now, I have no problem with adderall and other such drugs if the person taking them actually has a problem (ADD, ADHD, etc), but it REALLY infuriates me when students take drugs like this just to get ahead. It’s cheating and it’s not fair to those who don’t have access to the drugs, or don’t want to take the drugs. We have to work twice as hard just to stay at the same level.

    I’m currently in grad school for physics, and it’s very competitive. I can easily see why students would be tempted to use these drugs, but you can’t solve every little problem by taking a pill! School is about learning study skills and how to achieve the work/life balance.

  23. #5 I know it’s hard to believe, but sometimes diet and exercise don’t fix wonky brain chemistry. I say “meme” not to refer to the drug, but to refer to the sudden MSM scare that seems to really be overstating the number of people without wonky brain chemistry who are taking these things.

    #16 I’ve been taking the methvlin since, roughly, September, which is when my ADHD was formally diagnosed. Researching it and talking to my doctor, the process of figuring out which drug and which dose are right for you seems to be really trial and error-based. I just got lucky in that methvlin was the first drug I tried and it worked like a charm w/o noticeable, style-cramping side effects. We started there because, as my doctor so helpfully put it, “Methvlin is cheap as hell.”

  24. A 400mg a day prescription did absolutely nothing for me but drain my wallet. Five doctors later and they sheepishly admit that there’s a major placebo effect with it. Probably major kickbacks as well.

  25. Are we talking about the same drug? I’m on a generic that costs me about $35 every month and a half. That would be a pretty crappy kick-back my doctor is getting.

    If the beneficial effects I’ve noticed are placebo, well, I’m OK with that at this price.

  26. So you give someone a stimulant drug and their working memory improves? That’s not really anything new.

  27. @25 anonymous
    >>adderall as white privilege.

    Actually, I go to a State University of NY school, and we have free access to a psychiatrist. The only thing you have to do to get prescribed adderall is fill out a form with the symptoms of ADD checked off correctly. Then to buy them you just have to go to Wal-Mart and even if you don’t have insurance, they’ll give you your prescription for only a $5 copay.

  28. @Maggie Koerth-Baker. Not to be a pedant, but you mean Methylin, not Methvlin. I’m glad it works for you.

    The position that taking stimulants to get ahead is cheating is laughable. Would you stand by the position that drinking coffee to get ahead is cheating? Would you force a prospective employee to take a drug test and turn him down if he was ‘cheating’ by taking stimulants without a prescription?

  29. #31 – X99901

    Some psychiatrists bug me.

    I performed an adult ADHD assessment that involved interviewing the client for a couple of hours (including full screening for disorders and a developmental history), interviewing his mother for a couple of hours and administering validated ADHD self-report scales to the client, his father and best friend. I also read his school reports, did full intelligence testing, a learning disability assessment and a personality assessment.

    To think that some doctors use a self-report symptom checklist for “diagnosing” a disorder is mind-boggling.

    1. While sitting in the clinic waiting room one day, I watched a mother and late teen-aged son reading an ADHD pamphlet and quite obviously memorizing symptoms for their consultation.

  30. re #34

    Lazy assessment standards open the way for abuse by opportunistic people.

    I wonder, will having an ADHD diagnosis on your health files impact on your health insurance/job prospects later in life? I know a man here in NZ who was denied health insurance because his medical records said he had depression. This depression was diagnosed after he told his doctor he was feeling “sad” after a relationship break-up. Last time I looked, feeling “sad” didn’t fulfill criteria for a depression diagnosis. Don’t get me started on doctors prescribing antidepressants!

  31. I’m currently in grad school for physics, and it’s very competitive. I can easily see why students would be tempted to use these drugs, but you can’t solve every little problem by taking a pill! School is about learning study skills and how to achieve the work/life balance.

    While I feel for you – grad school is stressful – I have to disagree.

    Physics is not about work-life balance or study skills. It’s not about you at all.

    Physics (and science in general) is about making incrementally better guesses about nature.
    Some may do it because they get satisfaction out of it, but if you are doing it in order to have “work-life balance” you’re in the wrong game. There are career paths that are offer more of everything than science – if you think science will give you the best pay, hours, respect, or work environment, you are mistaken.

    But science needs to be done, because it’s the only way for our species to ensure long-term survival. Long term survival of not only us, but our planet and life in general.
    If those things are important to you, you won’t mind popping a few pills.

  32. He said school was about achieving a work/life balance, not physics.

    Even if you’re taking pills to be more productive every day, you still need to develop time management and study skills, aka a work life balance. Not everything can be done in an all-nighter, unless you limit yourself a lot.

  33. I have taken Provigil by prescription for a year now.

    I think it is an outstanding replacement for amphetamine in terms of wakefulness – there is no ‘high’, no ‘crash’, and in my experience you don’t build a tolerance to it and it is not addictive.

    As for productivity, I think it is very good for some tasks (like writing), but it makes multitasking and working with others more difficult.

    I do have two side effects on the days I take it though – insomnia and irritability.

  34. #38- this is the point I was trying to make

    #37- I am not studying Physics with the sole purpose of achieving a work life balance, or because I think it will make me a lot of money, I’m studying Physics because I think it’s a really fascinating subject and I really genuinely enjoy doing research.

    That being said, I don’t think it’s impossible to have a work/life balance when studying the “hard” sciences, and your attitude is one that’s driving many people (especially women) away from the field.

    My issue with these drugs, is that when you start to create an environment where the only way to stay ahead (and have some semblance of a life at the same time) is to use them, then it’s unfair to the people who 1. Don’t have access to them (although other comments have revealed that it’s a lot easier than I thought to get them…) 2. Need them to function at a “normal” level, and 3. Are not willing to take them for whatever reason (moral, legal, health issues, whatever).

  35. #40
    The end goal though in science really isn’t to have a “fair” playing field for everyone. It’s to get work done (a point made more eloquently Spazzm.)

    I honestly don’t care whats “fair” in my field, as long as it churns out results. Sure a good work ethic is important, but will the Stroop effect suddenly become invalid if John Stroop turned out to be high? If he was “cheating” his peers out of figuring it out first with stimulants?

    What if Darwin noticed this beautiful connection among lifeforms because he ate the wrong mushrooms, is that cheating?

    Whats fair for you is irrelevant. If a person becomes competent in their respective field (whether on drugs or not) and is able to successfully work in that field be it research or an applied form of the science, there’s no real issue.

  36. #41 I shouldn’t have even mentioned Physics, I was using it as an example for a stressful environment where people would be tempted to pop pills to stay on top, and not really where this stuff occurs (see article).

    I don’t think that the Stroop effect would be invalid if Stroop was high when he came up with it. That’s just stupid. I do think it’s a problem that a lot of people here seem to think the only thing that matters in science is producing results. By this logic we should just prescribe all scientists these drugs and lock them in their labs until they produce these results that are so vital to mankind’s survival.

    If you discourage people from studying (and continuing in) science with these attitudes, then you won’t have any people left to produce the results that are so important! That’s a totally different discussion however.

    As I mentioned, I went to a liberal arts school, and the majority of the people I observed using adderall etc. were rich white guys using it to stay up all night/stay focused to make up for their constant partying/getting high/goofing off.

    As the article mentions: “According to McCabe’s research team, white male undergraduates at highly competitive schools—especially in the Northeast—are the most frequent collegiate users of neuroenhancers. Users are also more likely to belong to a fraternity or a sorority, and to have a G.P.A. of 3.0 or lower… In other words, they are decent students at schools where, to be a great student, you have to give up a lot more partying than they’re willing to give up”

    Most of the time, these people aren’t going to be the ones discovering evolution or making great advances in their field because they’re undergraduate students. Mediocre ones at best.

    I just don’t think it’s fair that these students can go out partying, then use drugs to bring themselves up to the same level as people who work their butts off to get the same grades (forcing them to work twice as hard to do even better). If you’re not willing to buckle down and do the work (and give up a few things in the process, like a night or two of partying) then you should be doing something else. Apparently I am a minority in this opinion, but it’s just the way I feel.

    Someone above mentioned that my feelings must mean that I think drinking coffee should be considered “cheating” as well, or an unfair advantage. Coffee is cheap, legal, available to everyone, and has been determined safe for consumption without a prescription with few or no serious side effects. If a similar adderall alternative was available then sure, I’d be all for it. The fact that drugs enhance performance does not bother me as much as the fact that they’re illegal, potentially dangerous, and not freely and equally available to everyone.

  37. They’re looking at using Modafinil as an ATSMT (Amphetamine Type Stimulant Maintenance Therapy)in several parts of the world, mine included.

    I think that alone speaks volumes as to what sort of drug it is, when you look at diamorphine vs methadone and carry comparisons to dexamphetamine/methamphetmine vs Modafinil.

    I see no problem with using these drugs for a wide array of issues, or non-medical problems / off label – it’s an extention of human evolution, guys. Doctors who get uptight about using medications for which they were designed because you might enjoy it, or get additional benefits need to STFU and look at what modern pharmacotherapies are about (or maybe should be about, in my opinion).

  38. With these types of drugs there are often unforeseen drawbacks, as made clear by the many examples mentioned in the story and some user comments. Here is another:

    My friend is a sleep researcher and was asked by the air force why their pilots were crashing into gondola cables. As it turns out, the amphetamines fed to the pilots kept them alert and awake, but pilot capacity for mental calculation still declines as the need for sleep increases. Generally, evolution suggests to me that we get sleepy for very important reasons.

    Additionally, many drugs have state-dependent memory effects. i.e., it is much easier to remember a task/fact/concept when you are in a similar mental state. Thus if you cram while taking a certain drug, you will have poor information retention while not on the same drug. Flooding your brain with acetylcholine can’t be that much better than flooding it with dopamine and norepinephrine.

    I’m not against taking these drugs. I am just very very cautious. If I’m interested in enhancing myself, I don’t want a false sense of increase, or state dependent effects.

    There is no safe drug, only safe doses.

  39. How come everyone arguing about Physics here is focused on the grade? The people taking the drugs are doing so to pass a test. Doesn’t the fact that they learned less, obviously, than those who studied to do well in the test factor in? Isn’t that the point of a test, to see how much you learned?

    #37, I would say that those who learn the material well enough to do well on a test are likely to have more to contribute to the field than those who took a performance enhancing drug to pass. If they needed the drug to get the grade, how much did they actuall learn?

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