Smart Drugs for Smarter Climbers?

I used to be able to memorize 30 hand holds with accompanying feet at once. My coach would point out the rubber-stained yellow, green and blue pieces of plastic using a golf club. I’d pace back and forth in front of the wall, picturing the moves and body contortions. After a minute or two of staring I was good to climb. 

There are plenty of people with better recall than me, people who can memorize 60 holds or more in much less time. While my memorization skills improved slowly over time, I recognized I wasn’t much more than above average. But who has the time and energy for brain training when there’s climbing to be done? I became increasingly interested in the insta and facebook ads that kept popping up on my feed—ads that claimed I could simply buy a better brain. Seemed like science fiction, but we may not be too far off. 

The era of nootropics is upon us and has been for the past 50 years. Nootropics, or literally “mind-bending” drugs, are pills you can buy to change your life. They’re drugs that claim to clear the fog and improve memory. Drugs that boost creativity while enhancing your focus. One brand, whose product was upwards of $60 per month, stated: 

“We have been lied to. Despite what society reminds us on a daily basis, you were not born just to pay your bills and die. We believe that everyone is born a Genius, but with the way the world works, it’s no wonder so many individuals fail to realize their full potential.” 

The idea that you could buy a better brain started in 1960, when Romanian scientist Corneliu Giurge was attempting to create a pill for better sleep. After synthesizing “Compound 6215,” Giurge noticed something groundbreaking. The drug, known today as Piracetam, led to significant memory improvements after patients ingested it for one month. Based on that drug, Giurge coined the term nootropic.

The saga continued from there. Enter sites like Luminosity and movies like Limitless. To the deep dismay of Felix Hasler, a senior postdoctoral fellow at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain at Humboldt University, “hardly a week goes by without the media releasing a sensational report about the relevance of neuroscience results for not only medicine, but for our life in the most general sense.” 

So what do scientists say? Is there a “limitless pill” that will make us smarter, brighter, more capable human beings? Will supplements give climbers the ability to preview and memorize a route within seconds?

Thus far, there is no true intelligence-expanding pill. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t existing pills that can enhance specific aspects of the mind. Omega threes, flavonoids, vitamins and amino acids like L-Theanine have all been identified as having mind-enhancing effects. Indeed, drinking tea and eating berries have been widely cited as good-for-the-brian practices, but their efficacy in pill form is still up for debate. 

A 2015 review paper examined the effects of these common food-derived cocktails on cognitive performance. The study did not find convincing evidence that the supplements improved cognition. In an interview with Time, the lead author Dr. David Hogan, professor of medicine at the University of Calgary in Canada, said, “Supplements cannot replicate the complexity of natural food and provide all its potential benefits.”

Ginkgo leaves. Photo by congerdesign

Other, more glamorous sounding nootropic ingredients include Lion’s mane, ginseng and ginkgo. While there is limited evidence that these additives improve brain function, most research is modest at best and has been conducted on rats. Current review papers suggest need for further clinical research. Other papers suggest that if these ingredients do work, they do so at a cost. In a widely cited review paper on the effects of ginseng, lead researcher D.O. Kennedy wrote: “Recent research has demonstrated that single doses of ginseng most notably engender cognitive benefits in terms of improved memory, but can also be associated with ‘costs’ in terms of attention task deficits following less mnemonically beneficial doses.” 

Another cog in the nootropic wheel is that non-prescription nootropics are not regulated by the FDA. Companies need not live up to their sensational claims, nor actually put what they claim to put in their pills, chewable chocolates, or “best served cold” shots. Unfortunately for consumers, this makes discriminating there liable from the snake oil a real challenge. 

More hefty pharmaceuticals like Adderall, Ritalin and Provigil are also common nootropics. Adderall and Ritalin, both amphetamines, are prescription drugs for ADHD. They’re also widely used by cramming students and competitive professionals to increase focus and motivation. A 2015 review of Adderall and Ritalin found their impact on intelligence to be “modest” at best. However, as bbc.com noted, most people take amphetamines for perceived improvements in mental energy and motivation rather than intelligence, and they do so at a cost. 

Structurally speaking, amphetamines are not too far off from being crystal meth. Like meth, they are highly addictive and have been known to cause insomnia, loss of appetite, anxiety, irritability, headaches and dizziness—all of which would not be the best combo for a climber. 

Provigil seems to be the latest drug of choice among busy professionals. It is a stimulant that’s prescribed for narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea and sleep disorders. It can be used “off-label” by the same users of Adderall and Ritalin. A 2017 study concluded “preclinical evidence suggests potential beneficial effects” of using Provigil. Preclinical, however, being a key term… Users report improvements in attention, learning and memory. Still, just like Adderall and Ritalin, Provigil has its side effects: headaches, dizziness, anxiety, agitation, nausea—-the list goes on.

A 2014 review paper stressed the dangers of taking amphetamines, Provigil, and other cognitive-enhancing drugs to healthy developing brains. All performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals work by shifting neurotransmitter levels. The study warned that this may impair behavior flexibility as well as learning and memory circuits.  

On top of the known side effects of taking smart drugs, once has to wonder about the side effects once you stop taking those drugs. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, posed the question to bbc.com, “ How do you feel the day afterwards?” He insinuated that perhaps these drugs are effective in making users hyper-focused for a work day, but then the user is below baseline for the next 24 or 48 hours. Current studies are lacking in this line of questioning. 

There is a tried and true drug that climbers can rely on for enhancing their brain activity: caffeine. Luckily this drug is also the cheapest on the market. 

For now, dreaming of mind-bending utopias is for less trustworthy publications. Regardless of whether we’re talking about over-the-counter drugs or pharmaceuticals, the thing you can bet on is not a clearer head but a lighter wallet. Sorry climbers, keep working on those memorization skills!

Photo by freestocks.org from Pexels

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  • Delaney Miller is a three time U.S. Champion in the open Sports Climbing Series. In total, Miller has won 12 Championship titles between youth and adult, National and Pan-American competitions. She has three years of coaching experience and a degree in Health and Exercise Science from Colorado State University.

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