Smart Pills

doctor prescribing pills to his senior male patient

Smart Pills

Dr. Steve Mason

“We make some of our greatest gains when we see old things in new ways.”

Contact Dr. Mason by email at

Smart Pills

Many years ago, while still an undergraduate, I became interested in memory enhancing drugs…otherwise known as Smart Pills. Was it possible to simply swallow a tablet and add points to your IQ? Even preliminary studies showed that there could be such an effect. So how might this class of drugs called nootropics – work?

Experimenting with Magnesium Pemoline I had a result that was similar to amphetamines but without the increase in heart rate. A wide variety of such stimulants were already being routinely issued to combat soldiers who might need to be awake for prolonged periods of time. Pilots required to fly extended missions would be a good example.

But then the question was: Did the pills make you more intelligent or just more alert? Since the caffeine in a few cups of coffee could do the latter, I began to see my Nobel Prize slipping away. Then, when some subjects experienced aphrodisiac effects, I reached the end. Federal drug agencies were quick to ban anything that even hinted at increased sexual arousal. America still maintains its Puritanical roots though compounds such as Viagra and Cialis are considered therapeutic because they are seen as fixing something that’s broken and not merely serving to create desire…therapeutic as that might be.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I came across a book titled The Genius Within written by David Adam. (You can read a brief summary by Jean Broida in her on-line column The Health Edge.) Adam learned about a smart pill Modafinil and was curious. Could taking it make him eligible for MENSA, the international high IQ society? He decided to take the qualifying test twice; once before and once after a period on Modafinil. As it happened, he turned out to be bright enough for MENSA (a score in the top 2%) on his first try but he continued with his experiment and scored even higher the second time around.

So are smart pills something for everyone? Not really. They’re not magic potions as in you take one and you start doing calculus or speaking a new language. What they are can be better described as cognitive enhancers. They bring you to your best…to your highest level when you’re at your sharpest and most focused. You can recall facts you’ve already learned and you can learn and store new facts a bit more effectively. What’s more, you can do this more quickly than usual which is what psychologists call the Power function. It’s what contestants on JEOPARDY demonstrate when they get the answer a couple of seconds before you do.

Look At It This Way

While heightened perceptiveness and clarity of thought might help during JEOPARDY or a MENSA test, such faculties will not otherwise contribute much to daily living. Then we have to consider the dollar cost and the possibility of any untoward side effects. There may be a place for cognitive enhancers as an aid for Senior Moments during conversations and when they interfere with social activities but that’s still being studied.

So unless you’re planning on a half hour with Alex Trebek, you might want to skip any pills and just sip a cup of coffee instead.

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