Even low dose neurotransmitter-based stimulation is a concern, as our cells may try to compensate for the added level of stimulation in an attempt to return to their natural state. One of the ways our brain cells do this is through the internalization of receptors, which serves to ‘dull’ excessive signals and/or stimulation. Effects like this are well documented and are one of the biological underpinnings as to why opioids (painkillers) lose their effectiveness over time. This effect is lasting and would likely continue for a period, even after someone has stopped taking the stimulant.
Clinically, we also know that excessive manipulation of neurotransmitter systems can have other negative consequences, including serotonin syndrome, depression, anxiety and stimulant psychosis. Some compounds can also cause dependency and withdrawal symptoms.
Of even more concern is the number of young adults looking to these stimulants to help them in school – some at the behest of their parents. Neuronal activity and neurotransmitter control is key to brain development and a process called ‘synaptic pruning’ that occurs as our brains develop. Many people don’t realize it but our brains don’t reach maturity until our early twenties, which means that any alteration to our brains’ natural chemical equilibrium before they reach maturity could have developmental consequences.
Of course, not all stimulants are bad and I don’t want to scare people away from having a coffee tomorrow morning (I’m drinking a latte right now). However, there’s an important difference between a concentrated caffeine pill and a cup of coffee – one is man-made, and the other is more natural. Deaths related to caffeine pill overdoses, unfortunately, can happen, and trips to the emergency room from excessive energy drink consumption have risen from fewer than 2,000 in 2005 to over 20,000 in 2011.
In my mind, these numbers suggest a worrisome trend, as people try to ‘hack’ their biology without understanding the potential consequences.