Brain doping can have lasting consequences

Researchers observe long-term losses in learning ability and flexibility

Neuro-Enhancement: Pharmaceutical Tutoring for the Brain? © Kim Hager, Neal Prakash / UCLA
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Learn better with pills or work longer - that sounds appealing to many. But especially for young adults, brain doping can have lasting consequences, researchers now warn. Especially the frequently used ADHD remedy Methylphenidate inhibits the plasticity of the brain in the long term,
as experiments with rats show. As a result, learning ability and flexibility of behavior decrease.

More and more students are using medication to increase their mental performance. They take it to be able to study at night or to be able to think more clearly during exams. "Young adults in particular are facing increasing pressure to produce more and more power and are therefore tempted to seek funding, " said Kimberly Urban of the University of Delaware in Newark and Wen-Jun Gao of Drexel College in Philadelphia.

One of the most commonly used "smart drugs" for brain doping is methylphenidate - the active ingredient of the drug Ritalin, which is prescribed for the treatment of attention deficit ADHD. "This drug is currently most commonly traded on the black market at high schools and at universities, " the researchers report. In the US alone, 1.3 million adolescents and young adults used methylphenidate as a brain doping drug, according to a recent study.

Lasting behavioral changes

This already widespread abuse among adolescents is worrying, according to Urban and Gao. For at this age a crucial center of the brain is particularly susceptible to such manipulations: the prefrontal cortex. "This brain region is the control center for our judgment, control of emotions, behavior and decision-making, " the researchers explain.

ADHD drug Ritalin (methylphenidate) © Public domain

Unlike other brain areas, the prefrontal cortex is not mature in teens and twens. It continues to develop until the age of about 30 years - and in this phase is particularly sensitive to fluctuations in important neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine. "Adding a substance such as methylphenidate, which modifies these neurotransmitters, can disrupt the maturation of the prefrontal cortex and cause lasting behavioral changes, " the scientists warn. display

Experiments with rats carried out by Urban and Gao are also shown by this: If the rats were given low doses of methylphenidate, the excitability of their brain cells in the prefrontal cortex changed. This was the activity of the neurons muffled. This, in turn, affects the delivery of messengers that affect feelings and behavior.

Less adaptable and adaptable

But that's not all: even the plasticity of the brain could be disrupted in the long term by brain doping with methylphenidate, but also with the narcolepsy drug modafinil, the researchers warn. "An important feature of the prefrontal cortex is its high plasticity, it is the basis for working memory and active decision-making, " Urban and Gao explain. The basis of this plasticity is a very high proportion of a certain receptor type compared to other brain areas.

But this is exactly what the "smart drugs" can change, as experiments with rats showed. When these received low doses of methylphenidate or modafinil in their youth, this type of receptor selectively decreased. This, in turn, promotes attention in the short term, but inhibits flexibility and learning in the long term, as the researchers explain.

Methylphenidate is prescribed in different formulations and under different name. However, its effect is coordinated with ADHD patients, not healthy people Alfie66 / CC-by-sa 3.0

Sustained consequences even with incorrect ADHD therapy

The use of methylphenidate could therefore have lasting consequences for healthy adolescents and young adults and even for those children who are mistakenly receiving this remedy for ADHD, in fact, at this St To suffer. "This treatment would initially seem to be successful with young people: they follow the teacher carefully, are less hyperactive and learn better, " the researchers said.

But testing the work ethic and the flexibility of these children's behaviors could reveal subtle deficits that affect their entire lives. Because even with such simple skills as driving a car or social behavior, it is important to be able to react flexibly, Urban and Gao explain.

According to the scientists, further studies are urgently needed on the effect of these agents in young people. "Already, there is a high demand for methylphenidate in schools and universities, so many young adults are exposed to uncontrolled ingestion of this substance, " they warn. "To better manage the risks, we need to understand what changes are occurring in the brain and how they affect behavior and brain plasticity." (Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 2014; doi: 10.3389 / fnsys.2014.00038)

(Frontiers, 14.05.2014 - NPO)