33MD for March 30, 2009

POSTED: Monday, March 30, 2009 - 5:59pm

UPDATED: Thursday, June 3, 2010 - 11:58pm

Could a pill make you smarter? Some people say yes. They’re using medications off-label to help them concentrate, but there are drawbacks to taking the drugs.

David Plotz was exhausted. He had just had his first child. He was swamped at work. He jumped at the chance to try a medication for narcolepsy called Provigil. “The drug, it was a revelation because I had this whole day, this whole 16 hours with none of the down time that you have. You’re always on. I felt like I was my best self all the time.”

Provigil is part of a class of drugs called cognitive enhancers. It includes popular attention deficit disorder medications: Ritalin and Adderall. These drugs are said to improve memory, concentration, and learning. “Provigil is a yuppie drug. It doesn’t give you a high. It doesn’t make you feel ecstatic. All it does is make it easier for you to work harder.”

Dr. Nora Volkow from the National Institute on Drug Abuse says more and more healthy adults are using these drugs off label to help them be more productive at work, school, and home. However, they are only FDA approved for actual medical problems like ADD and narcolepsy. “What is concerning to me right now is the high levels that these medications are being already utilized by healthy individuals out there, when we don’t have sufficient information about their benefits and we don’t have a lot of information about the adverse effects.” Volkow says the possible side effects often outweigh the benefits. Some people do experience improved focus and productivity, but once they’re off the drug, they may be less productive than they were before they started using the medication.

There are no long-term studies on Provigil, so we really don’t know what it’s doing to the brain. The medicine is only available by prescription.

Stress from Hurricane Katrina may be to blame for a tripling of heart attacks in the New Orleans area. Tulane doctors say they’re seeing three times more heart attack cases now compared to before the 2005 storm. They also say heart attacks are accounting for a greater percentage of all hospital admissions. The doctors found post-Katrina heart attack patients are less likely to have medical insurance and jobs and more likely to need surgery.