Smart Drugs: Should we be excited or afraid?

Have you seen the movies, “Limitless” or “Lucy”? Wouldn’t life be such a breeze if there was a drug you can take whenever there is a problem that you cannot solve or, if you simply want to ace a presentation even with barely an hour of sleep?

Smart drugs, also known as “Nootropics”, are real.

Have you ever heard of smart drugs before? Whether you have or not, tried it or not, listed below are seven questions we should all be asking about these alleged brain enhancers:

1. What are smart drugs?

“Smart drugs” is a loosely used term that refers to a group of substances that are believed, some with scientific studies supporting their claims, to enhance brain activity, most especially those processes that improve memory, intensify alertness, enhance problem-solving skills, and boost brain and muscle energy. Many have legit medical uses for various cognitive-related dysfunctions, while some would rather be branded as supplements.

2. Are smart drugs legal?

Yes. Since many have medical uses, smart drugs are legal drugs. Although many are marked for prescription use only, users are able to access them easily, including via online transactions. When these are marketed as supplements, in the US, there is no proof of claim that needs to be reproduced, no stopping its distribution, and people can easily access them.

However, the use of a legal drug is another issue. Regulatory authorities would often rule that medicines are for sick people. That was what drove the US Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA) to ban the selling and marketing of Piracetam, a category of smart drug, as a supplement or, without prescription, beginning in 2010.  Piracetam is formulated to enhance the brain function of stroke patients. In 2016, the UK Home Office also took a similar stance against the nootropic brand, Noopept, considered to be a drug that gave a legal high. It is formulated with a substance synthetically resembling Piracetam.

The American Medical Associated has taken a stand on the use of smart drugs, albeit indirectly. The body passed a consensus “discouraging the non-medical use of prescription drugs for cognitive enhancement in healthy individuals”.

3. Who are using smart drugs?

According to reports, up to 25 per cent of students in top universities in the UK have tried Modafinil.  It doesn’t stop in schools. Another report exposed that use of smart drugs have also become common among young employees of startup firms located in California, where Silicon Valley is located.

4. Do smart drugs really make you smarter?



Those who have tried them and are hooked claim that smart drugs do enhance their performance. Others who have tried them say it was a nightmare.

For your information, listed below are just some of the smart drugs in circulation:

  • Modafinil (Provigil).  This is a drug originally formulated to treat narcolepsy. It simultaneously enhances attentiveness and keeps the user awake. A study by Battleday and Brem confirms that Modafinil use indeed leads to these cognitive improvements.

Since the patent has expired, this drug’s formulation is now available as a generic medicine but, you will still need a prescription to get your hands on it.

  • Nicotine.  It (not nicotine from cigarettes) enhances attention and mood by re-energizing your cells. In turn, the changes make your brain function on overtime.
  • L-theanine and Caffeine. This combination allegedly enhances your memory and mental endurance (1, 2).  That means, you can solve much more complex problems with it.

5. Are there any side effects?

Smart drugs are playing with no less than your brain so, how can it not have side effects? These drugs influence how your dopamine levels behave. Its behavior, in turn, turns on or off several mechanisms in your brain and body.

Smart drugs with legit medical use are being taken irresponsibly, outside of their originally intended use, and are being taken without prescription. That means, the effects of these drugs have not been exactly observed when taken by perfectly normal and healthy people.

Worse, many are marketed as supplements. When such products get a “Generally Recognized as Safe” label from the FDA, the manufacturers need not provide any proof of medical claim nor is it required to disclose potential side effects. In fact, many of these so called smart drugs do not even go through clinical trials. The market implication? They can be openly accessed by whosoever wants to use it.

So, again, are there side effects? Although it’s hard to say for sure, what is certain is that the risks are high.

6.  How can you access smart drugs?

Prescription only drugs require you to go see your doctor first. GRAS-labeled varieties are available right off-the-counter.

Still, both kinds are widely sold on the Internet, even in the Philippines apparently as we found some websites that do offer them. Users also get them from their personal networks and street vendors. With more people buying, the demand is high and, from the end of the manufacturers and distributors, the dollars keep piling up.

7. Should you be using smart drugs?

Let us take the allegation that smart drugs enhance certain cognitive functions to be true beyond doubt. What they do then is give you a boost but not exactly make you learn new things or new skills to help you get ahead with your performance.

Even when we leave each other to choose for ourselves, smart drugs have more societal implications than you might think. It’s like giving one person steroid and asking him to compete in a race with another who does not have it. Who said that life was fair? Then again, is it just? Should governments give all of their citizens smart drugs then? What an outrageous idea that would be!

People who advocate for the use of nootropics namedrop young, top-brass CEOs of startups who have allegedly used smart drugs too. Impressive but, Einstein didn’t have a smart drug when he unlocked the Theory of Relativity. So, when you are seriously considering to take or, are already taking, smart drugs, think about this: Where will you be when the smart drugs are gone?

If you are a parent, you should be worried too about how smart drugs may be making our children less resilient and more reliant to external factors other than their own smarts.

Smart drugs take away the pain in the gain, the excitement of a long wait, and the thrill that can only come from sheer, unadulterated hard work. In the long run, smart drugs make you believe less in yourself and in what you can do on your own. It’s not the smart drugs that will solve the equation you cannot decipher — that will have to be you.

This article is not intended to provide medical advise of any sort. Seek professional help for any medical attention you think you might need.



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