VANCOUVER — Toronto filmmaker Ann Shin was so intrigued by an animator's tales about doing some of his best work with the help of "smart drugs" that she wanted to learn how they would work if someone tried them as part of a months-long experiment.
She recruited Nikolas Badminton, who was then based in Vancouver and calls himself a "futurist" who speaks and writes about trends, to take on the task in California's Silicon Valley, the epicentre of a subculture known for using smart drugs, or nootropics.
Badminton spent five months working a hectic schedule and popping pills and powdered mixtures used by tech types aiming to enhance cognitive function as they power through projects, ward off sleep and seemingly operate like machines.
His journey, punctuated by long bursts of energy and sheer exhaustion, is captured in "Smart Drugs," airing Sunday on the Documentary Channel.
Badminton, whose sleep is disrupted while he's on the regimen, is monitored by a doctor through the so-called biohacking adventure that has him meeting "Brain Bro," who swallows handfuls of pills to try and keep up with the pressure to produce.
The word "nootropics" is used to market certain supplements sold online in Canada that claim to help with focus and increase energy. Some medications are also referred to by biohackers as nootropics, for instance Adderall and Ritalin, which are commonly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or modafinil, typically prescribed for narcolepsy.
Prescription drugs are often obtained from patients who take them for those reasons under a doctor's supervision.
Shin said she knows of a mother who uses her son's medication to get through busy periods at work.
"On days she presents to the board she takes her son's ADHD pills and she's on."
At the end of Badminton's nootropics experiment, a doctor in the documentary suggests other ways that the self-described workaholic could extend his output and maintain good health — such as yoga, meditation, and exercise.
Badminton said in an interview that he'd tried some nootropics about five years earlier but stopped because he was having lucid dreams.
However, he said he now takes two nootropics for short periods during busy work schedules and exercises as he strives to maintain a balanced life.
"I actually think these nootropics are a safe way of really giving yourself an edge and a focus on specific activities," said Badminton, who recently moved to Toronto. "I don't think I'd recommend it 40 hours a week, to always be switched on. You're going to burn out."
He advocated for people to openly use nootropics, though their long-term effects are unknown.
"It's sort of in the shadows as a practice," Badminton said. "But it really shouldn't be and it probably should be studied a bit more seriously in the medical world and integrated into how it could benefit people's lives."
Shin said the use of nootropics is concerning overall because people taking them seem to be treating their brains like computers in need of upgrading as part of a non-stop push to work.
"What I find most concerning is, are we moving toward a society where people don't feel they're enough as a human being, that they have to take pills or intervene with their bodies or their minds in order to keep up with society?"
However, Shin said that while she generally doesn't like taking pills of any kind, she tried modafinil and found it increased her focus.
"I'm not sure I did any better work," she said. "I have to say I do have other stimulants, like coffee, that work. It didn't stick with me. I didn't want to keep at it."
She said high-performing creative people are often fuelled by down time that allows them to reflect and increase their creativity.
Stan Floresco, a University of British Columbia psychology professor who studies the effects of drugs on mental disorders, said supplements advertised as cognitive enhancers aren't as rigorously tested as prescription drugs and advertising claims made about them are typically bogus.
As for people who take ADHD medications aimed at improving focus and working memory, there is a down side in that creativity suffers, said Floresco, also an investigator at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health at UBC.
"They'll keep you awake but you might not come up with the next big thing," he said, adding some people, including his students, try and get a competitive advantage with drugs whenever possible, as has long been the reality in sports for those pursuing a physical edge.
Neuroethicist Peter Reiner, also a professor in UBC's psychology department, said it's not known how many people are taking nootropics, but their use should not be considered cheating.
"You don't get smart from taking the drugs. You maybe study longer or work harder. They don't stick information inside your brain," he said, adding peer pressure is probably the most ethically charged issue about cognitive enhancers.
Reiner said he doesn't anticipate overall use of nootropics to increase outside of "hot spots" such as Silicon Valley.
Health Canada said any product making a health claim and sold or marketed in the country must first be approved as safe by the department's scientists, either as a drug or a natural health product.
It said in a statement that only one domestically produced brand of capsules that purports to enhance cognitive performance been approved as a natural health product.
"Products that are classified as prescription drugs such as those indicated for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder should be used only under the oversight of and as indicated by a health care professional," Health Canada said. "Canadians are advised not to use health products that are not licensed by Health Canada."
"Should Health Canada or its partner agencies find evidence that claims are false and misleading, the department will take appropriate action to ensure Canadians' health is protected," it said, adding the public can file complaints online.
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