Memory Enhancing Pills–Do they Really Work?

You’ve seen the ads on TV and read about them in your favorite magazines: memory enhancers that turn you into a memory genius. Pills that supposedly help you recall the names of people you met last week at a business conference or that relative’s birthday you always seem to forget. But do these magic memory pills really sharpen your memory? Could it be just so much hype by pharma companies trying to unload their latest ‘discovery’?

Safe as Coffee?

Taking memory-enhancing drugs to improve your capacity to recall and boost earning has raised a lot of questions. We look down on athletes and call them cheaters if they use steroids. So is using drugs to gain an intellectual edge also a form of cheating? Then again, some people insist that using drugs or supplements to boost memory is no different than drinking coffee, which simply makes you more alert. This begs the question: are brain-enhancing drugs as safe as coffee? Perhaps more importantly, do these brain boosters really work? And what about the side effects?

Loosely Regulated

It’s important to note that legal claims suggesting supplements may improve, boost, or enhance your memory need no data to justify them. According to the Council on Responsible Nutrition, dietary supplements cannot cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent Alzheimer’s, dementia, or any disease. These supplements are loosely regulated, and some may even contain undisclosed ingredients or prescription drugs. Many interact (sometimes dangerously) with medications—ginkgo Biloba, for example, should never be paired with blood thinners, blood pressure meds, or SSRI antidepressants. “Don’t be misled by hype,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., CR’s chief medical adviser. “They are not only a waste of money, but some can also be harmful.”

Not Originally Designed for Memory

Most ‘smart drugs’ were originally designed to deal with an entirely different medicinal purpose. Take Adderall and Ritalin, for example. Both are similar, yet they’re often prescribed for ADHD and ADD. They address the imbalance between the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. Available only by prescription, they may help deal with poor memory retention, trouble focusing, thought disorganization, impulsiveness, mood swings, and hyperactivity—conditions often associated with ADHD and ADD. There’s also Provigil, a stimulant used to keep people awake who suffer from narcolepsy or Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD). Provigil has been used by U.S. soldiers in combat and at the International Space Station.

Results Inconclusive

It’s a mixed bag. Some studies have shown that taking cognitive enhancers or smart drugs may improve mental performance. Other studies have proven inconclusive. Drinking too much alcohol can make a person feel smarter, better-looking, and wittier. The same may hold true for smart drugs—making a person only think they’re smarter.

Some Smart Alternatives to Smart Drugs

If you want to give your brain a boost, ask your doctor about nutritional brain supplements or memory supplements. In many cases, you may get a brain boost simply by getting adequate sleep and exercise, meditating, using biofeedback, or even drinking tea and coffee in moderate amounts.

Consult your doctor before taking any memory-enhancing pills.

Alex A. Kecskes has written hundreds of film reviews and celebrity interviews for a wide variety of online and print outlets. He has covered red carpet premieres and Comic-Con events for major films and independent releases.