Smart Drugs and the Military

Updated: March 17, 2021
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    The term “smart drugs” is a catch-all for a wide variety of things. Not all smart drugs are alike even in their most basic forms; mega-doses of caffeine and other stimulants may be lumped in with more sophisticated and tightly controlled substances such as Adderall or Modafinil.

    Do smart drugs and other brain stimulation techniques have any benefit for currently serving military members or veterans? This is a question on the minds of many, from DARPA scientists to pro bloggers looking for new developments into this issue.

    Back in 1992, The Washington Post published an article about a then-rising trend in use of “smart drugs” that were billed, in varying degrees of legality and truthfulness in advertising, as a way to enhance or even “hack” the human brain for the purpose of enhancing cognitive function, ability, and related aspects.

    Since the 1990s, smart drugs have not gone the way of other trends of the day, though some of the smart drug-related fads have; once upon a time, it was possible to visit a “smart bar” to consume drinks loaded (or supposedly loaded) with mind-enhancing substances, supplements, etc.

    Today, there’s a range of products available in the United States and abroad that have the potential to affect the mind in beneficial ways, and this is not lost on military researchers.

    Since the 1990s, the smart drugs landscape has changed a great deal both in terms of legal issues and the types of substances and techniques currently in the spotlight but research (government, personal, and otherwise) goes on.

    The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, has done a variety of research into brain stimulation and enhancement; this research is not limited to administering chemicals, compounds, and other substances. DARPA actively researches electrical brain stimulation and the electric stimulation of other parts of the human central nervous system.

    What Are Some Examples Of Smart Drugs?

    Caffeine, Adderall, and Modafinil have already been mentioned, but there are a variety of smart drugs that may be available with or without a prescription:

    • Acetylcholinesterase Inhibitors – This class of smart drugs is said to inhibit an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase, which lowers levels of a neurotransmitter that enhances brain function. The use of these smart drugs often involves treatment of Alzheimer’s.
    • Ampakines – These smart drugs are intended to improve learning, memory, attention span and related brain functions. This class of smart drugs is said to affect certain receptors in the brain that bind to a substance called glutamate. These smart drugs can be used to manage symptoms of ADHD, depression, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s.
    • Cholinergics – These smart drugs can affect the levels or neurotransmission of acetylcholine, which is said to be related to “cortical excitement” and may be effective for tasks requiring focus and attention to detail.
    • Dopaminergics – These smart drugs affect levels and/or utilization of dopamine in the brain. Some antidepressants may fall into this category, as well as some drugs used to treat Parkinson’s or similar diseases.
    • Eugeroics – these are “wakefulness” drugs that may be used to treat narcolepsy, and may have benefits for those suffering from ADHD.

    This is not a comprehensive list, it’s just an example of some of the drugs and treatments that may fall into the smart drugs category.

    Those investigating smart drugs will quickly learn that some of these substances require a prescription while others simply require the user to find a vendor in the U.S. or overseas.

    Military members should approach smart drugs with caution since some are banned, some are not, and some have no peer-reviewed research or long-term studies on the effects of such substances on the body.

    What About Herbal Remedies Or Supplements?

    Herbal remedies, dietary supplements, and similar products are not FDA related, may not have scientific studies or peer-reviewed research associated with them, but a variety of them fall into the smart drugs category for one reason or another. Most of the things listed here are available over-the-counter and have no restrictions in terms of military regulations.

    That said, any military member considering the use of one or more of these substances or products should consult a primary care physician first and their orderly room, first individual, Sergeant Major, etc. before using to make sure regulations or military orders don’t prohibit the use of a particular product.

    This warning is not just a boilerplate caution; in years past military regulations have been modified to prohibit the use of products that are legally available; synthetic marijuana, bath salts, “herbal ecstasy” and other products have been banned by base commanders depending on the location and the nature of the problem with a given substance.

    Prohibitions on a higher level such as a major command or even at the DoD level are not unheard of.

    Herbal Smart Drugs

    • Cat’s Claw/AC-11 – The substance known as AC-11 is derived from a plant called Cat’s Claw and is thought to reverse the harmful effects of stress on the body.
    • Ashwagandha – This is a “calming herb” that is said to be used for enhanced concentration.
    • Bacopa Monnieri – Some studies suggest that this substance (a perennial herb) may be helpful for improving cognition. Other beneficial uses are said to include treatment for symptoms related to epilepsy and inflammation.
    • Green Tea – Tea made with unfermented leaves is said to improve mental clarity and concentration.
    • L-Theanine – This supplement is said to improve cognitive function.
    • Panax Ginseng – There is more than one type of ginseng. The Panax variety is said to improve memory, enhance problem-solving abilities, and stimulate wakefulness.
    • Kratom – this is a popular supplement said to be useful for fighting opioid addiction but also to help enhance blood flow to the brain. This substance is not approved for use by military members. Consider the Air Force ban on Kratom under Air Force Instruction 44-121, Paragraph 3.5.6 which prohibits, “the knowing use of any intoxicating substance, other than the lawful use of alcohol or tobacco products, that is inhaled, injected, consumed or introduced into the body in any manner to alter mood or function.”
    • Piperine – this supplement is extracted or otherwise isolated from pepper and is said to enhance neurotransmitter function.

    Are Smart Drugs Legal To Use On Active Duty?

    This question raises some tricky issues. Some substances considered “smart drugs” such as Adderall are prescription-only; military members using Adderall without a prescription are in violation of military regulations that govern the use of controlled substances.

    As mentioned above, military members may be forbidden from using certain smart drugs or related substances even if the smart drugs in question are not mentioned by name in military regulations.

    The Air Force’s regulations include the previously mentioned Air Force Instruction 44-121, which forbids “the knowing use of any intoxicating substance, other than the lawful use of alcohol or tobacco products”.

    Active duty, Guard, or Reserve members should know is that an unknown (to the service member) substance may contain other substances that create a positive result on a military drug screening.

    Before consuming any substance in the smart drugs category, it’s important to discuss the drug with your doctor AND find out whether the drug or one of its’ additives is likely to create a positive drug screen result in a urinalysis.

    Smart drugs may affect heart rate (especially Adderall), alertness, ability to concentrate or perform complex tasks, etc.

    Because smart drugs are specifically intended to improve brain functions (rather than impair the brain’s ability in the way that cannabis or alcohol use does) some may feel a false sense of confidence in how their body will react to such substances especially the first few times they are ingested. There are no guarantees with any substances or medicine in terms of potential adverse reactions.

    Alternatives To Smart Drugs: The DARPA Connection

    The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is actively researching brain/machine interfaces including “brain-system communications” methods that require “invasive techniques” to connect the human brain to external systems.

    This research is designed to benefit those with brain injuries and illnesses, among other things. But DARPA doesn’t stop there; the agency is researching non-invasive approaches to brain-system techniques.

    Something called Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology is part of a four-year research project designed to take existing technologies into a more effective and efficient place.

    The DARPA official site says the culmination of this research could result in:

    Demonstration of a bidirectional system being used in a defense-relevant task that could include human-machine interactions with unmanned aerial vehicles, active cyber defense systems, or other properly instrumented Department of Defense systems.

    An article published on the DARPA site quotes Dr. Al Emondi, program manager in DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, who says:

    High-resolution, nonsurgical neurotechnology has been elusive, but thanks to recent advances in biomedical engineering, neuroscience, synthetic biology, and nanotechnology, we now believe the goal is attainable.

    The outcomes and focus of this research have more to do with the interface of humans and machines rather than elevated concentration levels or wakefulness, but the idea of using an external aid to the brain to achieve a performance-based outcome is quite similar.

    The methodology may differ, but the focus is still on altered performance thanks to an external interface or substance.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

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