Cognitive Enhancement Strategies: Prevalence and psychophysiological response
Director of Studies: Dr Catharine Montgomery, Second Supervisor: Professor Harry Sumnall, Third Supervisor: Dr Larissa Maier
Summary of PhD:
My programme of research has been developed to investigate substances that have previously been purported to enhance aspects of cognitive function and mood. These drugs, numerous in type and function, have at one time or another been reported to be beneficial to certain indices of cognition, such as: executive function, learning, attention and mood improvement. Broadly speaking, cognitive enhancement drugs are divided into two categories: soft enhancers, drugs that are characterised by the subtlety of their enhancing effects – i.e., herbal supplements and products containing caffeine – and pharmacological enhancers, substances that act more directly on the central nervous system and neurotransmission – i.e., controlled and synthetic drugs.
Study 1 of this programme took the shape of an investigative survey, and launched an online questionnaire across four UK universities to explore the prevalence of perceived cognitive enhancement (PCE) drugs. Intent, predictors and factors associated with use were also investigated, and early analysis indicated that both soft and pharmacological enhancers were used with the intent to improve cognitive function and to act as study aids. Unsurprisingly, soft enhancers were used considerably more (41%) than their pharmacological counterparts (3%), with caffeinated products being the most widely reported (30%). Of interest to this programme, however, and corroborated by research across the UK, was the use of modafinil, a wake promoting novel stimulant which was the most prevalent pharmacological enhancer (2.2%) reported. This is particularly interesting because the mechanisms of action of this drug are still relatively unknown, as are its long-term cognitive, neurological and physiological effects. As a result, stages 2 and 3 of this programme were informed by the lack of knowledge surrounding this substance specifically.
Study 2, currently in the process of data collection, is investigating cognitive function and haemodynamic response by using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) neuroimaging technology to elucidate the long-term impact of modafinil on homeostasis in the prefrontal cortex.
Study 3 will extend this investigation to examine aspects of physiological functioning in long-term users by assessing heartrate variability, pre-ejection period and blood pressure when participants complete a digitised multi-tasking test designed to load on stress response. Together, both studies aim to assess the impact of long-term modafinil use of cognitive and psychophysiological health.
After completion of my PhD, I hope to go onto postdoctoral research with the eventual aim of obtaining a lectureship at a university, and thus a career in academic research. As my primary area of interest is research in psychopharmacology, my ambition is to build on this field and my investigations into PCE that have already begun with my PhD, so that knowledge and understanding of these drugs can be increased.