Tag Archives: drugs

How Powerful are Placebo Effects?


Let’s say that you were diagnosed with social anxiety. Your psychiatrist prescribes you some pills that you can take right before or during social situations in order to reduce the negative effects that anxiety brings to you. It’s your go-to magic pill that does wonders in those dreadful situations where you have to be around numerous people. Every single time you have to meet up with extended family, or work in a group project, and god forbid- speak in front of the whole class for a presentation—your pills never fail to make you feel a little bit better.

What if those pills were nothing more than sugar pills? Sugar pills that have no chemical and active ingredients that are supposedly there to decrease your social anxiety symptoms. It’s simply an “empty” pill to get you to believe that by taking it, it would make you feel better. However, in reality, it does absolutely nothing to you physically. You realize it’s all in your head. Would you react positively or be completely furious? No matter your reaction, one thing could not be denied- the fact that placebo effects are powerful.

In an article I came across on the Psychology Today website, it highlights a study done by researchers Baba Shiv, Ziv Carmon, and Dan Ariely to see how placebo effects are manipulated depending on people’s knowledge about it. In their study, which was done in 2005, they used an energy drink that they either told people enhances mental ability largely or enhances it just slightly. The participants were then asked to unscramble a number of words given to them by the researchers. After the task, the participants were then asked to rate the effectiveness of the drink on their completion of the given cognitive task. The results? They found that the more people believed in the effectiveness of the drink, the more likely they were to unscramble more words.

This study supports the idea that placebo effects are extremely influential and affects us more than we think. This article leads me to think of a crazy yet logical theory– What if doctors alongside with pharmaceutical companies are merely prescribing and distributing sugar pills to make more profit? Maybe it’s actually just us, the consumers, who believe that taking those pills will make us feel better when it’s really all in our heads. Mind blowing? I sure believe so.

Although, sure enough, this is not true with every pill that people all over the world take. Majority, if not all, of the pills that are prescribed to the human population really do have a chemical effect on our bodies. But with this phenomenon of the placebo effect- I sure can’t help but wonder- what if?


Marijuana Use Hastens Onset of Schizophrenia

Marijuana use

Schizophrenia is one of the most well-known and perhaps the most misunderstood mental disease to the layperson. However, with the new knowledge stated in the above article and the new laws legalizing the use of Marijuana, we must understand what we may be getting ourselves into.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I am in favor of the legalization of Marijuana so long as there are other arguably worse drugs that are legal…and no, I do not partake and I’ve never had a desire to; which means I do not have a vested interest in the ultimate outcome of this policy.

When I mention Schizophrenia, most individuals I talk to bring up the movie A Beautiful Mind and bring up hallucinations. They also typically throw in the “Crazy” word at some point with the occasional “really” in front of it. While this can be true for some individuals, what is talked about less is the cognitive aspect of it all. After all, for these people THIS is their reality; it’s not just “something in the heads” to them, these things really do exist. Working in a mental health facility, I’ve witnessed what these individuals have to go through weekly.

Schizophrenia affects both males and females equally. Though it is found in all socioeconomic groups, it shows up more within the lower levels. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they start off poor, but for reasons we will discuss later, they may just end up in a worse position. Additionally, those of African descent are more likely to receive the diagnosis. The typical onset is in the early 20’s for males and later 20’s for females, though the range is between the ages of 18 and 30.

The effect on a person’s life could be dramatic based upon when they have their first episode. If a person is 17, they’re typically still in high school whereas a 30 year old is probably already done with college (unless you’re me). Those suffering from this disease find it hard to concentrate for obvious reasons and often get distracted from whatever they are doing. Their cognitive functioning is harmed because of this. An article done by Ronan O’Carroll suggested that verbal memory showed the greatest sign of impairment with these patients. Since most of education is verbal (lectures), one can only imagine how difficult it would be to get through school!

So, let’s get back to the original article which tells us that those individuals who use marijuana are likely to have their first episode about 2 years earlier than those who do not. If this is true, then the age range could potentially be 16 – 30 as typically marijuana users start in their mid to late teens. They also suggest that its use may trigger schizophrenia in those individuals that wouldn’t develop it otherwise.

As adolescence is a critical time for development within the brain. Potentially, the author suggests, the use of the drug could have an effect on the maturation of certain functions within the brain. Some may argue that 2 years is not a whole lot of time, however, 2 years of extra development could mean a lot. Two years could mean that the person has a diploma and is that much more employable and it could even mean finishing college completely!

One of the biggest complaints about the article is that the individuals who did the study did not just look at Marijuana use; in fact, the words that were used were “Alcohol” and “Other illegal drugs. They stated in the title that it was just about Marijuana. The article goes on to state that substance abusers in general were more likely to have their first symptoms 2 years earlier. This leaves a huge question within my mind about the validity to the claim that it’s Marijuana because it could potentially be any other illegal drug.

Ultimately, if these results are true for Marijuana use, the potential consequences could be devastating on an individual level. It is clear that this research needs to be refined to distinguish between the different types of drugs there are. If this holds true for Marijuana, then we must prepare for the potential consequences. For example, funding mental health hospitals to better deal with these issues, though we should be funding mental health more to begin with as it is sorely lacking and often overlooked. We must educate the populace of the potential harmful effects that this could have on younger individuals. This will not guarantee anything, of course, but it will allow individuals to make a more educated decision.

Let’s Talk (More) About “Lucy”

While another student in our class has brought up the film “Lucy” in the context of the popular myth that we only use 10% of our brain, there are many other aspects of cognitive psychology available to discuss in relation to the film.

“Lucy” follows its eponymous main character as she experiences a significant enhancement of her mental and physical abilities following an accidental consumption of a large quantity of a drug called CPH4. Specifically, CPH4 is a nootropic drug. These drugs are also known as cognitive enhancers or “smart pills” due to their main function: increasing cognitive ability.

Other films have used nootropic drugs as a plot device. For example, the 2010 film “Limitless” is about one man’s experience with a nootropic drug called NZT-48 that boosts his capacity for learning and memory. Similarly to “Lucy”, NZT-48 eventually gives the main character various psychic abilities such as telepathy.

But how do Hollywood depictions of nootropic drugs compare to how these drugs actually work in real life? Well, for a start, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that ingesting large quantities of nootropic drugs will allow you to read minds or levitate objects or turn yourself into a USB drive. In fact, taking higher-than-suggested doses of nootropic drugs can have the opposite effect and actually decrease cognitive ability.

Originally, nootropic drugs were developed to help people suffering from cognitive deficits as a result of disorders like Alzheimer’s and ADHD. However, recently, there has been a strong push to investigate the effects of prescribing these drugs to people without such conditions; this is known as neuroenhancement. Understandably, neuroenhancement is a very controversial topic that has raised many interesting questions about the legal, social, and ethical issues associated with this practice. This journal article discusses some of these issues.

One of the first areas of debate that this article addresses is the question of whether or not neuroenhancement even has a place in the doctor’s office. Some argue that it goes against the goals of medicine, that because the people seeking these “smart pills” aren’t looking for treatment of some kind, they shouldn’t be considered real patients and therefore a doctor-patient relationship should not be established. However, the authors of the article bring up a good point: not all medical professionals treat patients. Some are solely researchers; others may only provide evaluations. Yet these career options are not seen as detrimental to the healthcare field because they’re so clearly socially useful. The morality of neuroenhancement, on the the other hand, is slightly less clear. Maybe, the authors argue, prescribing nootropic drugs is not “ethically obligatory”, but because the goal is ultimately to improve the patient’s life in some way, neuroenhancement could be considered “ethically permissible”.

Another issue mentioned in this article is the fact that, as of right now, there aren’t any nootropic drugs specifically designed for use in a population without cognitive deficits. This means that the use of these drugs by healthy people is considered “off-label”. Off-label use of prescription medication is not inherently a bad thing; however, the medical professional who is prescribing a drug for something other than its original purpose does have a responsibility to properly research it. Unfortunately, since research on the use of nootropic drugs in healthy individuals is still scarce at the moment, accurate information about things like side effects and short- and long-term risks are not always available. This poses a provocative question: is it ethical to prescribe a drug when you’re not sure of its efficacy or safety?

Note that this dilemma is not only one of ethics; it must also be looked at from a legal perspective. For example, if the off-label use of a nootropic drug causes some kind of harm, the medical professional who prescribed it could potentially be found liable for malpractice. Therefore, it’s understandable that many doctors are hesitant to prescribe these drugs, causing patients to seek them elsewhere. Obviously, this is problematic.

Regardless of the medication, it is not advisable for people to obtain prescription drugs outside of a doctor’s supervision, yet this is exactly what many people who are interested in neuroenhancement do. For example, lots of students all around the world illegally obtain medications like Adderall and Ritalin in an attempt to boost cognitive abilities such as concentration and memory. For example, this study from 2010 found that while only about 5% of college students have been legitimately prescribed some sort of ADHD medication, almost 62% have been offered it by another student and 31% accepted that offer.

But equally as dangerous is the consumption of unapproved drugs and supplements that claim to have neuroenhancement capacities. There are countless websites like this one that sell various compounds to customers seeking neuroenhancement. If you click around a bit, you’ll see that it makes dozens of claims about how specific compounds will perform actions such as “increase learning” or “protect against diminished cognition after sleep deprivation”. The evidence provided to support these claims often takes the form of studies done on in foreign countries on non-human subjects in which results have not been able to be replicated. To the educated eye, buying and consuming these compounds is clearly a bad idea. But the majority of the world is not trained in research and gets a lot of their information from the media, which (as found in this article) commonly hypes up the effects of nootropic drugs while downplaying the potential risks. In fact, the aforementioned website has had so many requests from customers begging for a “Limitless”-style drug that they had to specifically address this in their FAQ.

So why are nootropic drugs such as CPH4 and NZT-48 so hard to replicate in real life? The most commonly accepted answer is that cognition is complicated. The systems involved with cognitive abilities such as attention, memory and learning are insanely complex. Boosting these systems requires a much more in-depth knowledge of fields such as cognitive neuroscience than we currently possess. Clearly, with such a high demand for nootropic drugs, their research and development will continue. According to Hollywood, quite soon we’ll all have turned into amorphous supercomputers only to disappear into the space-time continuum. But looking at the science out there, it’s a lot less likely.