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Smart drugs – a smart move for society?

Modafinil is one of the so-called nootropics used for enhancing performance. Source: Lee Jordan, Flickr
Modafinil is one of the so-called nootropics used for enhancing performance. Source: Lee Jordan, Flickr

For many people, trying to keep energy and motivation levels high throughout the working day is hard. Many turn to substances such as coffee to help keeping them sharp. Although useful, these are not the only substances that are used in today’s hectic life. The need to perform better than others, especially in a competitive environment, means that some go even further in order to come out on top. Certain substances are helping them remember more, focus better, and work longer hours.

Cognitive enhancing drugs, or nootropics, are a group of medications or nutritional supplements that work to enhance certain aspects of mental function. The term includes everything from illegal or prescription drugs, to substances commonly found in food or beverages, such as caffeine in coffee or l-theanine in tea. The research on the effects of some of these substances are still being done, but what already exists shows great potential in improving human mental capabilities. What is lacking, however, is research on how long-term usage affects the bodies and minds of the users.

Still, that does not stop those who judge that the positive effects outweigh the risks. The users range from students to CEOs, to military personnel and astronauts. The U.S military uses Modafinil, a drug designed to treat narcolepsy and sleep-related disorders, to keep their personnel functioning longer in high-fatigue environments. Previously, amphetamines were used due to their similar effects, but they were replaced because of Modafinil’s less harsh side effects and lower risks of causing addiction. Modafinil can also be found on the International Space Station in order to aid the astronauts during their demanding operations.

Some drugs, such as Modafinil, are not always available on the market for anyone to buy. Depending on the country’s legislation, they might either be freely available, prescription only, or illegal if deemed to not have any positive pharmaceutical effects. In countries where the drugs are not readily available, profitable grey and black markets have sprung up, prompting questions about the drugs’ authenticity and safety from the users who buy from these sources. Experiences from users on internet forums who have bought from various online sources vary; from being satisfied, to experiencing psychedelic effects, to other unwanted effects, and, in extreme cases, even death. There is little way of knowing whether you are receiving what you ordered.

According to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly one in five of questioned students at prestigious Ivy League universities are reported to have misused a prescription stimulant in order to gain an academic advantage. Reports that students are feigning the symptoms of ADHD in order to gain access to prescription medications, such as Ritalin and Adderall, raise the concern that physicians might have to question their patients’ motives when seeking medical help, something which might negatively affect those who truly need the medications.

Will the cost of nootropics disfavor students from poorer families? Source: David Goehring , Flickr CC
Will the cost of nootropics disfavor students from poorer families? Source: David Goehring , Flickr CC

The possible benefits of using nootropics for work and study are plenty, but widespread usage still remains problematic. For example, the drugs are in many cases outright expensive. Reforms have been passed in many countries throughout the world in order to help those with less economic means to afford the costs of higher education. If the usage of nootropics were to become widely accepted, and even encouraged, what would happen to those students who are not able to afford them? In this way, performance enhancing drugs could enhance the unfair gap between rich and poor students.

Real life examples sometimes tell a different story. Students of Xiaogang High School Number One in Xiaogong, located in the Chinese province of Hubei have, according to China Daily, been using IV drips with nutrients and amino acids to study for the fiercely competitive college entry exam. The school administration not only actively helped administer the IV drips, but also helped the students pay for the cost of using the drips. When this was discovered the provincial education authority claimed they knew nothing of it and launched a formal investigation. According to the same article in China Daily, some experts argue that there are gains to be made from the use of the IV drips. A bottle of the fluid costs around 100 yuan. Indeed, if the use of nootropics would become widespread, one of the biggest winners would be the pharmaceutical companies that produce the substances.

With the increasing popularity of nootropics, access to most of these drugs are still controlled by the grey and black markets. Forcing users to go through these channels exposes them to the uncertain authenticity of the drugs. The feigning of symptoms by those who want safe drugs is also causing problems for those that really need the medications. Fully legalizing the substances seems like a non-option until more research is done on the long-term effects, and legalizing still comes with the question of possible socio-economic consequences. While the debate and research rages on, the users continue facing legal and health uncertainties – risking a lot to become smarter and even more efficient.

ERIK SVENSSON

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