Our brain is extremely powerful and capable of carrying out many complex tasks. But the amount of information that we can process at any given time certainly has its limitations. Modern day neuroscience may have made it possible to increase the raw accessible power of our brains with the use of some remarkable drugs. In their current state, the effectiveness of these supplements in regular people is dubious, but with more research, they could potentially hold the power to do amazing things with our minds. The 2001 thriller film Limitless features a writer, Bradley Cooper, who takes a nootropic drug called NZT-48, which tremendously augments his cognitive capabilities and as a result, he becomes capable of amazing feats. If such a drug was available, would you be willing to take it?
Nootropic is Greek for “toward the mind” and, like its namesake, it was created as a medicated drug for neurodegenerative patients in order to enhance their cognitive abilities. One of the first nootropics was piracetam, a memory drug created by Cornelius E. Giurgea and a team of Belgian scientists. It was prescribed to patients with Alzheimer’s disease in order to delay cognitive deterioration. Many more nootropics have been created including
Modafinil which was used to treat narcolepsy, methylphenidate (Ritalin) for use in ADHD patients and, one of the more famous ones—Adderall, which is effective at treating symptoms of ADHD and narcolepsy. These drugs generally increase attention, cognitive control, and working memory all while minimizing fatigue.
Recently these drugs have been marketed by pharmaceutical companies to enable faster information processing and an increase in IQ. Students under the pressure of college level education or professionals working in intellectually demanding environments may turn to such drugs, in desperation, to gain a competitive edge through any means available. It is not outlandish to refer to these substances as the steroids of academia. The actual effects of these drugs for academic use are not entirely understood and therefore public use has not been approved by the FDA, although most can still be legally purchased in the United States.
The major question that arises is whether these drugs should be allowed for public use. Wanting to become more intelligent through external factors is not something that is foreign to us. People have always tried to modify aspects of their life, such as diet, to improve their ability to think and solve problems. Caffeine is a widely used supplement that meets the criteria of a nootropic in that it is used to boost awareness and ability to assimilate information. Many people also take completely non-controversial supplements such as Omega-3 fatty acids that are scientifically proven to increase brain volume. People that claim that nootropics are unfair and should be deemed illegal, must also address the ethics of other more common supplements.
At Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) specifically, an informal survey was conducted to obtain opinions on nootropics and their place in a learning environment. 46 freshman and sophomores responded to a survey that posted on Facebook inquiring about exposure to these drugs and opinions on using them to boost cognitive capabilities. In response to the question “Do you know of anyone (including yourself) that has taken an unregulated supplement (not FDA approved) to improve their ability to perform better in school?”, approximately 45 percent of the responders answered “Yes” to this question, as shown in the data represented in Fig. 1. This information suggests that nootropics do indeed affect the lives of WashU students to some extent. My next question dealt with the student’s willingness to take a cognitive ability enhancing drug. A majority of the responders said they would never take a nootropic (Fig. 2). Upon being asked about their reasons for responding “No”, the primary concerns were that these drugs are unsafe and that their use would be unethical and analogous to cheating (Fig. 3).
These data suggest that WashU students would prefer that nootropics did not make their way into academics. However, the regulation of such substances is incredibly difficult as demonstrated by the fight against steroid use in sports. It is difficult for any single group to make decisions about what a person can and cannot put into their body especially when it comes to something so nebulous as a brain enhancing drug. There are certainly situations where the ethics of such a drug is unquestionable, like in the case of patient suffering from a neurodegenerative disease, but the ethical concerns of nootropics may very well outweigh any benefits they may have in an academic environment. As the quality and effectiveness of these drugs rapidly develops due to new scientific innovations, well thought out decisions on their use will be required to prevent large scale disputes and increasing social inequality.