Innovative mechanisms of action for pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement: A systematic review

Psychiatry Res. 2015 Sep 30;229(1-2):12-20. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2015.07.006. Epub 2015 Jul 8.


Pharmacological cognitive enhancement refers to improvement in cognitive functions after drug use in healthy individuals. This popular topic attracts attention both from the general public and the scientific community. The objective was to explore innovative mechanisms of psychostimulant's action, whose potential effectiveness was assessed in randomized placebo-controlled trials (RCTs). A systematic review was carried out, using the words "attention", "memory", "learning", "executive functions", and "vigilance/wakefulness" combined to "cognitive enhancer" or "smart drug". Methylphenidate, amphetamines, modafinil, nicotine, acetylcholine esterase inhibitors and antidepressants were extensively studied in previous meta-analyses and were not included in the present work. Drugs were classified according to their primary mode of action, namely catecholaminergic drugs (tolcapone, pramipexole, guanfacine), cholinergic drugs (anticholinergics), glutamatergic drugs (ampakines), histaminergic drugs, and non-specified (glucocorticoids). Overall, 50 RCTs were included in the present review. In conclusion, a number of new active drugs were found to improve some cognitive functions, in particular verbal episodic memory. However the number of RCTs was limited, and most of the studies found negative results. Future studies should assess both effectiveness and tolerance of repeated doses administration, and individual variability in dose response (including baseline characteristics and potential genetic polymorphisms). One explanation for the limited number of recent RCTs with new psychostimulants seems to be the ethical debate surrounding pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement in healthy subjects.

Keywords: Attention; Cognitive enhancement; Healthy adult; Memory; Performance.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / drug effects
  • Benzhydryl Compounds / adverse effects
  • Benzhydryl Compounds / therapeutic use
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants / therapeutic use
  • Cognition
  • Humans
  • Levodopa / adverse effects
  • Levodopa / therapeutic use
  • Male
  • Memory, Episodic
  • Methylphenidate / adverse effects
  • Methylphenidate / therapeutic use
  • Modafinil
  • Nicotine / adverse effects
  • Nicotine / therapeutic use
  • Nootropic Agents / adverse effects
  • Nootropic Agents / therapeutic use*


  • Benzhydryl Compounds
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants
  • Nootropic Agents
  • Methylphenidate
  • Levodopa
  • Nicotine
  • Modafinil