This is your mind on max­i­mum: Hem­mel Am­ra­nia on the po­ten­tial of smart drugs

Brain-boost­ing drugs can help stu­dents and aca­demics alike to un­lock their po­ten­tial, ar­gues Hem­mel Am­ra­nia

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Hem­mel Am­ra­nia is a re­search as­so­ciate at Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don’s Fac­ulty of Nat­u­ral Sciences. He is an ex­pert in UK med­i­cal reg­u­la­tions and has re­searched “smart drugs” and their ef­fects since 2010.

The no­tions of in­cor­po­rat­ing ma­chines into our bod­ies or us­ing ge­netic engi­neer­ing to al­ter our DNA have been sta­ples of science fiction, comic books and pop­u­lar phi­los­o­phy for many years.

There is, how­ever, a world in which hu­man de­vel­op­ment is ac­tu­ally tak­ing place now, and while not ex­actly se­cret, it is be­yond the ev­ery­day knowl­edge of most peo­ple.

While our ex­po­sure to the ideas of be­com­ing “more than hu­man” might be limited to watch­ing the hu­man cloning drama Or­phan Black on Net­flix, ad­vance­ment in this area is hap­pen­ing all around us. Mas­sive leaps in trans­plant­ing or­gans and tis­sues – be they from one per­son to an­other, ar­ti­fi­cial or­gans or those from an­i­mals – are rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing med­i­cal care. Syn­thetic body parts and ad­vanced ro­botic pros­thet­ics are help­ing to trans­form the lives of am­putees, peo­ple with birth de­fects and oth­ers suf­fer­ing from any num­ber of ill­nesses or med­i­cal prob­lems.

How­ever, huge ad­vances in medicine are be­ing held back by the pub­lic, politi­cians, re­li­gious groups and pol­i­cy­mak­ers not be­ing able to grap­ple with these big is­sues as fast as science is mov­ing. Our moral sense on is­sues such as stem-cell re­search is not adapt­ing as quickly as science needs it to. Medicine, phi­los­o­phy and so­ci­ety more gen­er­ally will have to grap­ple with the idea of per­fectly healthy peo­ple re­quest­ing am­pu­ta­tions so they can have ad­vanced pros­thet­ics fit­ted. When ex­per­i­men­tal cy­ber­netic im­plants come along, doc­tors will have to re-ex­am­ine the “do no harm” vow that has guided them for mil­len­nia.

Dop­ing in sport and the as­so­ci­ated ef­forts to hide the prac­tice and evade de­tec­tion are big news. Many ma­jor sports tour­na­ments – most re­cently the world ath­let­ics cham­pi­onships in Lon­don – are over­shad­owed by spec­u­la­tion as to who is “clean” or not. Top ath­letes are sup­posed to show us what the hu­man body is ca­pa­ble of. So is the en­hance­ment of hu­man per­for­mance with drugs de­mean­ing or merely an ex­ten­sion of our nat­u­ral abil­i­ties? Could it be that, in the fu­ture, we al­low ath­letes to use what­ever tac­tics and tech­niques they see fit?

What about ev­ery­day peo­ple? Thou­sands of col­lege stu­dents falsely ob­tain pre­scrip­tions for Ad­der­all and Ri­talin, drugs used to treat at­ten­tion-deficit dis­or­der, be­cause for those who do not have ADHD they pro­mote con­cen­tra­tion and fo­cus. Pro Plus, a caf­feine pill, is a sta­ple on univer­sity cam­puses ev­ery­where, al­low­ing stu­dents to stay up all night cram­ming for an exam. Is this an un­fair ad­van­tage? Is it ac­cept­able for stu­dents to risk their health in pur­suit of bet­ter grades?

How about the oft-re­peated no­tion that hu­mans use only 10 per cent of their brains? Well, it’s a myth – all of our grey mat­ter is taken up. It is true in a sense that most peo­ple are achiev­ing only 10 per cent of their brain’s po­ten­tial. One way to un­lock this po­ten­tial is with a class of drugs called nootrop­ics, or “smart drugs”. Drugs such as modafinil boost mem­ory by 10 per cent, sharpen fo­cus and con­cen­tra­tion, pre­vent fa­tigue and im­prove stamina and en­durance. They are used by ath­letes, Oxbridge stu­dents, doc­tors on night shifts, long-haul lorry driv­ers and the armed forces. The self-ex­per­i­ment­ing Tim Fer­riss, the mil­lion­aire en­tre­pre­neur and au­thor of 4-Hour Body fame, is a fan of nootrop­ics, and the nu­tri­tion guru Dave Asprey uses modafinil. Is this fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from us­ing a cup of cof­fee to wake you up in the morn­ing, aside from the fact that nootrop­ics are safer and have fewer side-ef­fects than caf­feine?

It’s thought that about a quar­ter of stu­dents at top uni­ver­si­ties such as Ox­ford are tak­ing modafinil, and there are al­ready calls for cam­puses to in­tro­duce sports-style drug screen­ing. Eth­i­cal con­cerns about whether oth­ers will soon feel un­der pres­sure to take sup­ple­ments to stay com­pet­i­tive are rag­ing on cam­pus. There’s also the is­sue of the cost and af­ford­abil­ity of such drugs when stu­dents are al­ready pay­ing hefty tu­ition fees for their cour­ses. As stu­dents re­flect on those high fees, the com­pet­i­tive job mar­ket, their busy aca­demic and so­cial sched­ules and just how much might be at stake, it’s no won­der that they feel the pres­sure to per­form at their max­i­mum and to do what­ever they can to get ahead.

The is­sue of smart drugs raises the ques­tion of what con­sti­tutes an un­fair ad­van­tage – af­ter all, modafinil only en­hances the brain’s nat­u­ral abil­i­ties. The facts still need to be learned; the es­says still need to be writ­ten. But smart drugs free us from pre­con­cep­tions about what is achiev­able and of­fer a new level of pro­duc­tiv­ity to those will­ing to take the step. Ul­ti­mately, peo­ple should be al­lowed to make their own choices, and us­ing nootrop­ics stands as just an­other one of those choices. There’s no more un­fair ad­van­tage in tak­ing a pill than in chug­ging litres of caf­feine-rich en­ergy drink to stay awake for an all-night study ses­sion.

What new heights could hu­man­ity reach if we could take full ad­van­tage of all that science can of­fer us? How short-sighted it would be not to keep push­ing up against the boundaries of what we are ca­pa­ble of. Prud­ish­ness is not go­ing to help us, whether we are lib­er­at­ing our­selves from hu­man lim­i­ta­tions or march­ing blindly to­wards a fu­ture that we can barely com­pre­hend.

How long be­fore we see re­ports of not just stu­dents but also aca­demics turn­ing to smart drugs to keep up with the hec­tic pace and in­tense com­pe­ti­tion of univer­sity life? Modafinil is al­ready used to break through creative blocks when writ­ing and to mas­sively in­crease out­put, as well as to sus­tain long ses­sions of exam mark­ing, not just prep. Given the ben­e­fits on of­fer and the en­vi­ron­ment we work in, it prob­a­bly won’t be long at all.

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