Should People Use Smart Drugs?
(On the Ethics and Efficacy of Nootropics)
To begin with, the somewhat vague term “nootropic” was coined by a Romanian scientist named Corneliu Giurgea in 1972, after he created a drug that he believed enhanced memory and learning. Since then, a huge market for smart drugs has grown into a vast industry that’s still on the rise. A recent report by Grand View Research estimated that it could reach more than 10 billion dollars annually by 2025, growing steadily at about 8 percent per year. The hype all started in 2011, the year that the movie Limitless hit theaters and the up-and-coming Pennsylvania-based pharmaceutical company Cephalon was acquired by the Israeli giant Teva Pharmaceutical Industries for six billion dollars. In 2013, the American Psychological Association estimated that “brain booster” supplements and other cognitive enhancement products were already a billion-dollar-a-year industry. Then, by 2015, “brain fitness” had become an 8 billion dollar annual industry. Plus, in 2020, nootropics have now gone thoroughly mainstream by intersecting with other powerful consumer trends.
During the rise of smart drugs, a major portion of Silicon Valley took human optimization philosophies mainstream. This fervor gave way to a cognitive enhancement craze, in which I have eagerly and earnestly participated. In fact, although I only really just drink coffee and smoke weed nowadays, in the past I have used a number of different drugs, both legally and illegally, as well as for work and play. I really love amphetamines, like Adderall or crystal meth, which are effectively nootropics like every stimulant, including caffeine. However, in regards to this, I completely agree with the law. Coffee should be readily available, Vyvanse should be by prescription only (although it’s my favorite drug), and meth should be completely outlawed. The point is that there was no real cognitive enhancement happening when my friends and I snorted and smoked a lot of meth in my teens. If anything we became deranged from amphetamine psychosis. In contrast to this, when I wake up and put on a pot of coffee every morning there is a good deal of cognitive enhancement happening after I have my first cup. Plus, with my current addiction, the worst I get from missing my morning coffee is a bit of a headache, but going through amphetamine withdrawal is a hellish nightmare.
One of the main issues in all of this is that street-grade amphetamine salts are often tainted, and this is the same problem with a number of nootropic products on the market. The FDA and FTC warned manufacturers and consumers in 2019 about possible advertising fraud and marketing scams concerning nootropic supplement products. The FDA and FTC stated that some nootropic products had not been approved as a drug effective for any medical purpose, were not proven to be safe, and were illegally marketed in the US under violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. So, before ever taking any supplement, please make sure the product is a legally approved drug with safety and efficacy at the doses recommended. It’s also important to understand that numerous studies have shown that many of the supplements on the market are less neurologically stimulating than a cup of coffee. In fact, most of the supplements out there are just scams. Many of the active ingredients in cognitive enhancement products have not been proven to work. As a perfect example of what I mean, Alex Jones sells Brain Force Plus and The Real Red Pill in the InfoWars Shop. Let the buyer beware! Pregnenolone is a steroid, not a smart drug.
Granted, there are some things out there on the market that really do work. Personally, I’ve taken piracetam in the past as an over-the-counter cognitive enhancer, and although I didn’t like it, there is nothing really wrong with it. Piracetam is very, very mild, but something does happen to you while on it. Neurologically, piracetam and aniracetam act as positive allosteric modulators of AMPA receptors and they appear to modulate cholinergic systems. In line with this, Piracetam acts on glutamate receptors, which can work to improve learning and memory. As I said before, some of the drugs out there are not FDA-approved, but a few of the products still work. Systematic reviews have noted that both Tolcapone and Levodopa improved verbal episodic memory and encoding. In sharp contrast to this, Fexofenadine, Guanfacine, and Pramipexole show no significant cognition-enhancing effects in healthy individuals. Simply put, some of the stuff out there works, at least a little, and some of it doesn’t. Things work in different ways too. For instance, Modafinil intake enhances executive function but does not produce improvements in mood or motivation in sleep deprived or non-sleep deprived individuals. The trick is in knowing what you need and why, and also if you should even take it or not.
The use of cognition-enhancing drugs by healthy individuals in the absence of a medical indication raises many concerns including issues with adverse effects and the diversion of prescription drugs for nonmedical uses. Along with these medical concerns, there are also moral concerns over the ethics and fairness of the use of cognitive enhancement drugs in various different aspects of life. For instance, does it matter if someone takes smart drugs to get better grades at school or a promotion at work? As another example of what I mean, should mathletes who are prescribed Adderall be allowed to compete against those who don’t take the drug? Think about it. If one challenger drinks a cup of coffee, should they all get to, or even have to? Better yet, can the playing field ever really be leveled? What actually constitutes an unfair advantage, and why? If it’s true that there is no way to make everyone the same, then does it matter in what ways and to what extent people use performance-enhancing drugs? If someone drinks an espresso before a chess tournament, are they cheating? What about if they take Modafinil? What about Adderall? The list goes on and on. The question is, where do you draw the line? Would you ever, and should you ever use smart drugs yourself? I know I do. So, what about you?