This article is part of the Research Topic Augmentation of Brain Function: Facts, Fiction and Controversy

Review ARTICLE

Front. Syst. Neurosci., 13 May 2014 | doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2014.00038

Performance enhancement at the cost of potential brain plasticity: neural ramifications of nootropic drugs in the healthy developing brain

  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, USA
  • 2Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA, USA

Cognitive enhancement is perhaps one of the most intriguing and controversial topics in neuroscience today. Currently, the main classes of drugs used as potential cognitive enhancers include psychostimulants (methylphenidate (MPH), amphetamine), but wakefulness-promoting agents (modafinil) and glutamate activators (ampakine) are also frequently used. Pharmacologically, substances that enhance the components of the memory/learning circuits—dopamine, glutamate (neuronal excitation), and/or norepinephrine—stand to improve brain function in healthy individuals beyond their baseline functioning. In particular, non-medical use of prescription stimulants such as MPH and illicit use of psychostimulants for cognitive enhancement have seen a recent rise among teens and young adults in schools and college campuses. However, this enhancement likely comes with a neuronal, as well as ethical, cost. Altering glutamate function via the use of psychostimulants may impair behavioral flexibility, leading to the development and/or potentiation of addictive behaviors. Furthermore, dopamine and norepinephrine do not display linear effects; instead, their modulation of cognitive and neuronal function maps on an inverted-U curve. Healthy individuals run the risk of pushing themselves beyond optimal levels into hyperdopaminergic and hypernoradrenergic states, thus vitiating the very behaviors they are striving to improve. Finally, recent studies have begun to highlight potential damaging effects of stimulant exposure in healthy juveniles. This review explains how the main classes of cognitive enhancing drugs affect the learning and memory circuits, and highlights the potential risks and concerns in healthy individuals, particularly juveniles and adolescents. We emphasize the performance enhancement at the potential cost of brain plasticity that is associated with the neural ramifications of nootropic drugs in the healthy developing brain.

Keywords: methylphenidate, modafinil, ampakine, cognitive enhancement, synaptic plasticity, brain development

Citation: Urban KR and Gao W-J (2014) Performance enhancement at the cost of potential brain plasticity: neural ramifications of nootropic drugs in the healthy developing brain. Front. Syst. Neurosci. 8:38. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2014.00038

Received: 24 November 2013; Accepted: 03 March 2014;
Published online: 13 May 2014.

Edited by:

Mikhail Lebedev, Duke University, USA

Reviewed by:

Kimberly Simpson, University of Mississippi Medical Center, USA
Christopher R. Madan, University of Alberta, Canada

Copyright © 2014 Urban and Gao. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Wen-Jun Gao, Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, Drexel University College of Medicine, 2900 Queen Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19129, USA e-mail: wgao@drexelmed.edu

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