A growing number of people are taking smart drugs. It’s not just students and tech industry types. Even professors are ‘biohacking’, as they say in Silicon Valley. Last week a Cambridge neuroscientist estimated that one in five academics used smart drugs to keep on top of their workload.
So should we be taking them, too? Here we look at the evidence and sort the pointless from the powerfully effective.
Silicon Valley is abuzz with talk of ‘nootropics’, which in this context means supplements. They are classed as a food and aren’t subject to the strict regulation that drugs face, meaning they are easier for a startup to produce.
But do they actually enhance cognitive function? Probably not. At least, according to Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge, there is little good evidence for them.
The best evidence backs the prescription drug modafinil. A review of 24 papers found that the drug does enhance cognitive function in more complex tasks.
A more recent study concluded that modafinil improved performance in chess, as long as the players weren’t restricted by time. (The idea is that modafinil may deepen your thinking but will probably slow it down, too.)
A regular user describes the drug’s effects: ‘It definitely works! It grabs hold of your attention span and allows you to become fascinated with a particular subject over long periods of time, so if you use it correctly it’s enormously useful. The problem is in the comedown. It’s a mood enhancer, so depression inevitably follows.’
My own experience tallies with this. Under the influence of modafinil I was able to hold a conversation about classical music for several hours without becoming bored or irritable. It’s a subject I’d never been interested in before.
Unfortunately, there’s a drawback. Doctors in Britain can only prescribe modafinil for narcolepsy or chronic fatigue. Most users buy it online, which is legal if the pharmacy is based abroad. These pills aren’t regulated, however, and that means they aren’t always safe. A study by the European Alliance for Access to Safe Medicines found that 62 per cent of products bought online were ‘fake, substandard or unapproved’.
Shipments of smart pills have been seized and among them were drugs that hadn’t been tested on humans.
‘Microdosing’ psychoactive compounds is another way people are experimenting with the limits of cognitive performance.
This isn’t a legal grey area. It’s entirely illegal in Britain. It involves taking ‘sub-perceptual’ amounts of a substance, typically less than a 100th of the optimal dose. If this sounds like homeopathy, it’s not. The doses are small but not vanishingly so. It’s a practice that is popular, once again, in Silicon Valley, where many people swear by it.
An infrequent user told me about his experience with ‘magic truffles’:
The first time I took psilocybin I was microdosing without knowing it. I ate one truffle nodule to see how it would taste (a bit like licking a battery, as it happens) and the subtle effects became obvious after about 20 minutes.
The drug placed me at a slight distance from reality as I normally experience it. Just enough to question what I was doing and why. I was able to think more creatively and critically without being incapacitated by its psychedelic effects.
Then I ruined it. My unwitting experiment ended when I chewed and swallowed the rest of the contents of the bag. I was taken on a six-hour trip, during which I laughed, cried and contemplated the possibility that the entire universe existed solely in my mind.
In terms of cognitive abilities I was performing at about the same level as a puddle on the floor.
Academic research on psychedelics has been through a renaissance in recent years. There is credible evidence to suggest that the drugs could be used clinically to treat anxiety and depression.
Evidence for its status as a ‘smart drug’, however, is limited to incoherent musings on internet forums where members have handles like ‘budluv’ and ‘ketmonkey’.