Whether energy drinks, caffeine tablets or Ritalin: More and more people in Germany are taking drugs to increase their mental performance or alertness, as a study shows. According to this, around 70 percent of those examined took such neuro-enhancers at least once in the last year – most often something containing caffeine, but also other active ingredients. Prescription drugs such as Ritalin, Modafinil or antidepressants are particularly common among young adults and older people.

They are intended to keep you awake, help you learn and strengthen concentration: medications such as the narcolepsy drug Modafinil or methylphenidate (Ritalin), which is actually prescribed for ADHD, are considered neuro-enhancers. They can – similar to caffeine or some other freely available “stimulants” – strengthen mental performance and promote concentration, alertness or memory. However, studies also show that this “brain doping” does not always have the desired effect. Nevertheless, the trend towards self-optimization through brain doping continues to increase.

Sebastian Sattler from Bielefeld University and his colleagues have now investigated how much people in Germany currently use neuro-enhancers. To do this, they evaluated the data from more than 22,000 participants of different ages who were interviewed in detail. This is the most comprehensive representative study to date on the distribution of neuro-enhancers in Germany.

It was recorded whether and how often those involved had taken legal substances such as caffeine and caffeine tablets or dietary supplements and home remedies to improve their mental performance in the past. Questions were also asked about the use of prescription medications such as modafinil, methylphenidate or antidepressants and beta blockers, as well as illegal drugs such as cocaine, cannabis and the like.

The result: Almost seven out of ten respondents – 69.9 percent – had taken at least one performance-enhancing drug in the past twelve months. The most common were caffeinated drinks such as coffee and energy drinks: 64.2 percent of those surveyed stated that they had consumed these in the past twelve months with the express aim of improving performance. Also relatively common is the use of freely available dietary supplements and home remedies such as gingko preparations – around 31.7 percent use such products.

Such stimulants are particularly common among young and middle-aged people: “In order to improve their performance, people aged 35 to 44 and younger people consume caffeinated drinks and caffeine tablets significantly more often than older people,” reports senior author Guido Mehlkop from the University of Erfurt .

The proportion of those who take prescription drugs such as modafinil, methylphenidate, antidepressants or beta-blockers to improve performance, even though they are healthy, is significantly lower: 3.7 percent of those surveyed said they were currently taking prescription drugs without medical necessity, which corresponds to around 2.5 million users. According to the researchers, this means that slightly more people are using such drugs than in previous studies.

“Of these people, almost one in three stated that they had used such funds 40 or more times within a year,” says Sattler. Around 40 percent of those surveyed do not fundamentally reject the future use of such drugs to improve performance. “This number surprised us. There seems to be a great willingness to take performance-enhancing drugs for which there is no medical need,” said the researcher.

However, only a few respondents – 1.4 percent – admitted to having taken illegal drugs such as cocaine or amphetamines. 4.1 percent had taken cannabis in the past twelve months, presumably to regain their performance by reducing stress or to stimulate creativity, as the team explains. These included primarily young male adults under the age of 34.

Also interesting: According to the data, prescription neuro-enhancers are more likely to be taken by very young or older people in Germany. “We ask ourselves why this is,” says Mehlkop. “In older people, it could be assumed that their mental performance is declining and they want to compensate for this in order to continue to meet the demands of their job.” In young adults, such as students, there could be pressure to perform be responsible for the trend towards brain doping.

But this does not always have the desired effect: “Medicines with the active ingredients modafinil or methylphenidate, which are prescribed for daytime sleepiness and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), among other things, can also support individual aspects of cognitive performance in healthy people,” says co-author Uwe Fuhr from the Cologne University Hospital. “But not everything that is currently swallowed has the desired effect.” In addition, such drugs can lead to side effects such as nausea, high blood pressure and sleep disorders.

The original for this article “More and more people are using prescription drugs as “brain doping”” comes from scinexx.