TODAY   |  June 05, 2013

‘Smart’ drugs: Miracle pills, or too good to be true?

If there was a pill to make you smarter, would you take it? A new generation of so-called “smart” drugs is being used by people looking for an edge, but doctors warn of serious potential side effects. NBC’s Kristen Dahlgren reports and Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman of Columbia University Medical Center offers his perspective.

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>>> 7:43 with an interesting question. if you could take a pill and it would make you smarter, would you take it? an article in this month's edition of "details" magazine says a new generation of so-called smart drugs is being used by people looking for a competitive edge. is it a miracle or is it too good to be true? here's nbc's kristen dahlgren.

>> you know how they say we can only access 20% of our brain.

>> reporter: in "limitless" bradley cooper plays a depressed unproductive writer until a little pill gives him super focus.

>> a tablet a day and i was limitless. i finished my book in four days.

>> reporter: jonathan riley says for him that's real life .

>> i would get to work and be on fire.

>> reporter: the 41-year-old bioengineer take provigil. it increasingly used as a generation of brain enhancers called nootropics or smart drugs .

>> it makes me feel alert and i was able to see more possibilities, i was able to look at something and see more than just kind of my limited scope before.

>> reporter: where high stressed professionals once turned to coffee, energy drinks , even add medications --

>> recently the academy of neurology has called this a gray area in terms of prescribing pat teshs among ifses and their patients.

>> reporter: the doctor says the drugs aren't addictive but can cause side effects if not taken properly.

>> i'm not against the concept of building a smarter brain. what i am against is people that just haphazardly go in and just try to pretend they're chemists and do things to their brains that could be hurtful in the end.

>> reporter: the company who makes the medications says the drugs are not recommended for cognitive enhancement , but the search for smart drugs is nothing new. some call it human nature . jonathan riley says he's tried going off the medication, just calls it smart.

>> i think i really enjoy who i am more when i'm on it.

>> reporter: for "today," kristen dahlgren, nbc news, los angeles .

>> dr. jeffrey lieberman, good morning to you.

>> thank you.

>> i read this script two or three times and something about it doesn't feel right to me. i don't seem to think this is a great idea. how do you feel about it?

>> well, with human biology , like everything else, there's no free lunch and if you take something which boosts your performance, the question is what downside or what are you going to pay for it. it's completely understandable that people in this competitive world and our increasingly competitive society would seek things that can enhance their performance whether it's in sports, whether it's in school or whether it's in business. however you have to understand what is the science behind it and if you do avail yourself of it, what are the risks.

>> and if the company that makes the drugs that we talked about in that piece right there comes right out and says they are not recommended for this purpose, should it give people pause?

>> it definitely should but on the other hand, matt, many medications that have fda approval for the specific indication are often used for other purposes because their pharmacology allows them to medically be helpful to people and doctors cannot be restricted to just those fda indicated drugs. on the other hand they can't be used recklessly and particularly with drugs that affect brain chemistry there are real downsides.

>> if you're the ceo of a company and got an employee saying i'm taking these things and gives me new perspective, i feel more effective.

>> i would refer him to your doctor. have you consulted him, is he prescribing? you have to get the substances from a doctor, not a dealer. the other class used are nutriceutical drugs, nutritional or naturally occurring substances. i don't want to label the whole industry with one brush but there's no evidence that any of these things work for any kind of performance enhancement.

>> one thing's for certain we're going to be hearing more about this in the coming years, not less. doctor, thank you very much. i appreciate