From smart drugs to over-the-counter nootropics, popping pills to boost brain power has become a billion-dollar business. After all, in our increasingly distracted, aging, and sleep-deprived world, anything that promises better concentration, alertness, and memory is more than tempting – for some it might feel like a necessity. Combine that with the fact that we don’t have conclusive evidence that these drugs and supplements cause long-term side effects and it’s no surprise that cognitive enhancers (both pharmaceutical and supplements) are growing in popularity.
Of course, these pills are not without drawbacks, some of them quite serious. First, there’s limited evidence that nootropic supplements or pharmaceuticals have any effect on the brains of healthy people. For example, studies have found that those without ADD/ADHD who use stimulants such as Adderall experience moderate effects at best and put themselves at risk for side effects such as addiction and dependence as well as cardiovascular issues. Nevertheless, the misuse of these drugs by those they may not truly help is growing.
While there’s long been concern about prescribing stimulants to children as well as their abuse on college campuses, a new study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine suggests that the use of various types of cognitive enhancers is an increasingly accepted practice in the American workplace.
The Penn neuroscientists set out to gauge attitudes towards cognitive-enhancing pills and they approached the question in a unique way. Using 3,727 U.S. volunteers via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, they studied how people responded to the use of enhancers after reading vignettes that framed the use of these drugs in various metaphorical styles and contexts. So, for example, they read about an employee using the drugs as “fuel” as opposed to an athlete or student using them as “steroids” or using them to “dope.”
It turns out that people were fine with the idea of workers using the drugs (as opposed to students or athletes). They were, however, more likely to support their use by others than their own, which supports other research suggesting that people are more lenient on the issue of cognitive enhancement in others. The “fuel” metaphor also made their use more acceptable, especially in the workplace where everyone stands to benefit from improved employee performance.
The authors suggest that people are more likely to accept the “fuel” metaphor because it implies maximization of potential as opposed to a dishonest achievement. The “doping” metaphor, on the other hand, may not go over well because it implies minimal effort and unearned achievement.
Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of Neurology and director of Penn’s Center for Neuroaesthetics, said in a press release that "We have become a culture constantly focused on progress and achievement, which has caused many to turn to cognitive enhancers to keep up and get ahead." But the research shows that it’s all about how you frame that achievement if you want the support of your peers. And this research is yet another example of how metaphors and framing can sway people’s opinions, a key component to creating public policy on the issue.
The Penn study is the latest in the long line of research into, and writing on, cognitive enhancement in the workplace, much of which had addressed whether these drugs create an unfair advantage for workers or assess the risks of all workers eventually being forced to enhance themselves in order to keep up. While the latter seems unlikely as long as there’s little evidence that healthy brains benefit from current nootropics and stimulants designed to boost cognitive performance, there’s little agreement on the former. Add to that the growth of nootropic pills that are marketed without FDA regulation – they are classified as dietary supplements, not medications - and you get a risky situation, especially since it involves playing around with your brain.
David Pearce, a cofounder of the nootropics advocate group Humanity Plus, told Newsweek that despite his own use of a cocktail of enhancers, he’s concerned about the current market for “smart drugs”:
A vast unregulated drug experiment is currently unfolding across the world with the growth of online pharmacies selling all kinds of pills and supplements. Many of the scientific studies often cited are small, unreplicated, poorly controlled, and don’t disclose source of funding. [And] publication bias is endemic.
As for the ethical issue of whether some people get an unfair advantage from prescriptions like Adderall, we still don’t know. Their stimulant effects are technically separate from cognitive enhancement – being wide awake is not the same as being more skilled. While it’s clear we’re not yet able to pop a pill to become smarter, being alert at will is certainly an advantage in some cases, even when it does not lead to “better” work.
Still, smart drugs are becoming more popular among professionals who think it gives them a competitive advantage. Modafinil is of particular interest since there is research that suggests it makes even healthy people better at planning and decision making. This is, of course, still different than intelligence. And while Modafinil is a popular choice, those without narcolepsy still need to find a doctor willing to prescribe it off-label or risk getting it illegally. Combine this with research that shows that its side effects can include headaches, anxiety, and insomnia and it doesn’t exactly sound like a long-term recipe for success.
If you really want to boost your cognitive performance without raising ethical issues in the workplace, we currently know of only one way to do it with good results and minimal side effects, but it’s one people seem unwilling to prescribe themselves – and that’s good old-fashioned exercise.