Cognitive enhancement is something that many of us would have thought about. Sat at the desk staring at a blank word document – wouldn’t it be great to have those assignments done better and quicker! In this endeavour some resort to caffeine, while others prefer exercise, meditation, or all three.
In the meantime, some try to hack their brain. Every year, more and more students fall for promises that ‘nootropics’ such as Modalert (modafinil), Ritalin, or donepezil can provide a shortcut to an upgraded self: alert, motivated, and able to function well with little or no sleep. Prescriptions for the so-called ‘nootropics’ or ‘cognitive enhancers’ have been flourishing on the black market in recent years. Originally developed to treat narcolepsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or dementia respectively, they are often advertised as an easy way to achieve brain’s full potential.
“…the often overlooked adverse side effects are yet another reason for worry”
Apart from obvious concerns to do with buying off shady websites whose main aim may be to maximise their sales, the often overlooked adverse side effects are yet another reason for worry. Headaches, insomnia, symptoms of depression and anxiety, cardiac arrhythmia, skin rashes are only a few of them. And prolonged use can cause dependence. Since the brain continues its development until late adolescence, chances are that changes caused by nootropics during this critical period are irreversible.
Still, any good grounds to believe they work? Not yet. Studies to date have provided a mixed bag of results. Those which do, indeed, find a positive effect on performance have tested them on clinical populations, rarely looking at the long-term effects in healthy individuals. Moreover, effects are observed in controlled lab conditions, which could possibly have little to do with completing assignments in real life.
Then what does this inflated rhetoric rest upon? Some advertising websites claim that they hack the balance of particular neurotransmitters within the brain, the molecules that help
neurons communicate with one another. In particular, they vaguely explain that nootropics over-stimulate the secretion of neurotransmitters that facilitate cognitive function, such as acethylcholine or glutamate. In reality, the mechanism behind the way this medication could work is poorly understood – something that academic reports do not fail to emphasize.
And supposing they worked, do we want academic “doping” to become the norm?
“the hype about nootropics is possibly dangerous, as people may start feeling pressured to give them a try to keep up with the new standards”
The hype about nootropics is possibly dangerous, as people may start feeling pressured to give them a try to keep up with the new standards. It is time to ask ourselves, is this the society we want to foster? Do we want to find ourselves in a more work obsessed society in which we are expected to enhance ourselves to work longer hours and achieve ever-increasing levels of productivity? Will these tools make our lives easier? If we asked the people who more than a century ago fought for the right to an eight hour work day – and won – their answer would probably be no.
Now it is for us to decide whether we whether we want to sign up for this poorly designed mass experiment. We don’t know what exact effect nootropics have on healthy individuals. If they do, indeed, have a positive one, it isn’t without side effects or societal implications. There may be room for nootropics in a future society, but first we need to test their efficacy and safety on healthy people.