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Potential Realized, Danger Not Averted

Potential Realized, Danger Not Averted

Photo: cup of coffee

Presentations, homework assignments, exams – students have a particularly tough time during examination periods. Late at night, when others are already asleep, they still sit over their books and study. A popular pick-me-up is caffeine – in the form of coffee or energy-drinks. There are some students, for whom this is not enough though. “When healthy people use prescription drugs to increase their performance, it’s considered brain doping“, says Klaus Lieb. He is the Director of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University Medical Center Mainz, Germany, and has studied this topic extensively.

For many years, the subject of brain doping has been talked about, but there is limited reliable data for Germany. This is now going to change, since Lieb together with his colleague Andreas Franke has surveyed over 1500 adult pupils and students of different majors on the topic of brain doping. One central result: Four percent of them have at least once used prescription drugs to enhance their concentration – and thus conducted brain doping according to scientists. “If there was a safe drug without side effects, even 80 percent of respondents would be prepared to use it“, Lieb highlighted in the results of his study. Only ten percent completely objected to resorting to such aids.

A trend from the US

In practice, a look at the big picture shows that young adults from Germany comparatively use restraint when it comes to taking in performance enhancing drugs. According to studies, almost a quarter of students in the US use drugs to improve their concentration and achieve better results.

“Those pills do not make you smarter“, says Lieb and dashes the hopes of many by saying so. The pills only influence the brain metabolism and make sure the person concerned is able to concentrate better. Yet this alleged advantage also comes with a price. Many such drugs have the potential to cause addiction. The reason: The active ingredients also stimulate the reward system in the brain. The absorbed substances actually increase release of the messenger substance Dopamine and thus trigger a feeling of happiness or even euphoria with the consumer. The result: The intake of pills is positively reinforced, meaning memory saves this as something it wants and wants again. The brain learns to search for corresponding experiences and to experience them more often.


Photo: pills in a hand

Substances, which can trigger such a reaction, are available by prescription only in Germany and are actually meant to be used to treat diseases. They are prescribed to people suffering from drowsiness for example, to better regulate their sleep-wake cycle or to children with attention deficits, so they can concentrate better at school. In addition to that, there are amphetamines. They are taken as party drugs, so you are able to dance through many nights and stay awake. In Germany, amphetamines are actually illegal.

Addictive potential and other risks

Despite being only obtainable with a prescription and being illegal, consumers continually manage to obtain these substances. “The Internet opens the door“, knows Lieb. And this is true for students as well as for professionals. According to a survey last year by the German public health insurance provider DAK on the subject of “Doping on the job“, more than two million people in Germany have taken pills at least once to achieve better performance.

How common brain doping is in individual professional groups, is yet unknown. Fact is that people with high responsibilities in their job – such as pilots or physicians – occasionally take stimulating drugs to stay awake longer. Therein Lieb sees –aside from the potential for addiction- even another risk. “Some drugs can lead to complete misjudgment of your own abilities“, stresses the psychiatrist. If a physician has taken such drugs, it can therefore get unsafe for the patient.

For the short term, pills might help to improve concentration. “In the long run though, our brain will not let us push it“, Lieb knows. That is why one should look for alternatives to stay fit. “Make sure to get enough sleep, take breaks and move physically“, is his suggestion. It’s also important to have good time management, so you don’t get into extreme situations in the first place where you have to work through many nights in a row. And for those little slumps in-between he suggests coffee: “Three to four cups a day are harmless.“

Simone Heimann

(Translated by Elena O'Meara)


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