Smart drugs: a proliferating phenomenon

Dotty Liao

If you were offered a pill that promised to increase your focus and concentration, improve your short-term memory, or give you energy and alertness for several hours, would you take it?

Most people probably would – in fact, an ever-growing amount of teens and young adults already are taking drugs that are known to give those desired results.

“College kids have been doing it for years,” said Maia Szalavitz in an article for Time. “About percent of U.S. university students report having taken stimulants ‘nonmedically’ at least once, according to a 2005 study of nearly 11,000 students mainly in an attempt to improve grades.”

Smart drugs, also known as nootropics, are supplements designed to optimize certain areas of the brain to enhance and facilitate higher cognitive processes and executive function.

The first nootropic (piracetam) was synthesized by Corneliu E. Giurgea in 1964. Since then, cognitive enhancers have spread and grown exponentially in the medical and holistic field.

Drugs like modifinil, amphetamines (Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin) are regularly prescribed to patients who suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorders or sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy.

Since the human mind is fallible and doesn’t work like a computer, people will sometimes cut corners under stressful situations where their performance may be scrutinized.

That means students in competitive schools, people working in cut-throat work environments or athletes who are involved in competitive sports are the ones most likely to resort to somewhat extreme “solutions.”

A full-time college student might not have the mental stamina to focus on all of his or her classes without sacrificing time that would otherwise be allocated to more fulfilling activities.

That’s where the cognitive enhancers come in handy.

“Despite our natural ineptitude at managing this volume of data, we are increasingly treated like information processors in many aspects of life,” writes Alex Horne in a VICE article talking about nootropics.

“Performance targets, efficiency ratings, and calculated margins of error have become the parameters we work within,” he said. “In education, even the most abstract and non-prescriptive subjects are being reduced to an exercise in memorizing facts. And in attempts to plan and organize society, we are treated as predictable machines.”

Due to the stressful work and school environments many people are thrown into, it’s not hard to see why a seemingly magical pill that gives your brain a pick-me-up would appeal to so many.

In the TIMES article written by Szalavitz, assistant Professor of Sociology at Adelphi University Jessie Klein says he “believes students give in to the pressure to take drugs just to keep up,” and that, “societal acceptance will turn into coercion, particularly in a cutthroat, winner-take-all environment.”

But there are risks involved, like with any other mind-altering chemical that we put into our bodies.

“The effects of chronic, high doses of amphetamine are toxic; it can cause psychosis, depression and cognitive deficits, which are sometimes irreversible. That’s why the street drug methamphetamine rightly has a terrible reputation. But lasting problems don’t usually emerge from the therapeutic use of prescription stimulants — while the drugs do carry a risk of increased blood pressure, which raises the chance of heart attack and stroke, close medical monitoring reduces that risk,” Szalavitz said.

So far, there haven’t been many other studies showing how these prescription drugs affect our brain chemistry, health or mental faculties after years of regular use.

In an article for BBC, Marek Kohn talks about how the importance of moderation in each individual when it comes to using smart drugs.

“The brain is complicated. In trying to upgrade it, you risk upsetting its intricate balance.”