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Smart drugs: Big questions, Bigger possibilities

David Moyer

David Moyer covers emerging technology and ethics. A freelance journalist, he has worked for several clients in a writing and consulting capacity. He graduated from the University of North Texas with degrees in Political Science and Religious Studies. In his spare time he enjoys reading, coffee, and passionate debate.

Smart drugs: Big questions, Bigger possibilities

If you could control your computer using only the movements of your eyes, would you? What about if you could control your computer with your mind? Assistive technologies that allow disabled individuals to more fully interact with their world are nothing new. If you’re someone who follows emerging technology, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that these same technologies have mainstream applications that could very well change how any and all of us interact with the world around us.

You are also probably familiar with the ethical questions that these technologies raise.

No one will argue that assistive technology aiding the disabled to gain abilities and opportunities that would otherwise be denied to them is a good thing. But as assistive technologies continue to advance and even surpass “natural” human capabilities, is it ethical for otherwise healthy and fit individuals to undergo elective procedures to enhance themselves? If someone could get an implant that enhances their cognitive or physical functions beyond “normal” human levels, would that individual have an unfair advantage over “normal” humans? Is it unfair only in trivial pursuits like contests and serious competitions like professional sports? If so, is it still unfair and unethical in military applications, where the entire point is to be smarter, better, faster than opponents, and to bring our soldiers home unharmed?

It’s a question that sounds like something out of science fiction, something more comfortable in the realm of Isaac Asimov or Dan Simmons. But it’s a topic that modern ethicists wrestle with, and a debate that is nowhere near being settled. Since the medical, engineering, and technological hurdles that these applications must still overcome means their ethical implications are still only a hypothetical debate.

But what if that wasn’t actually the case?

What if it was possible to significantly enhance cognitive function right now, not with an implant, but with a pill?

Welcome to the world of “smart drugs,” and they are already here. Also called cognitive enhancers, neuro-enhancers, or nootropics, smart drugs are a group of pharmaceuticals, vitamins, and supplements that purport to improve mental functions such as cognition, memory, intelligence, motivation, attention and concentration past average human levels to varying success.

According to experts, “off-label” use of pharmaceuticals to enhance cognition and performance is on the rise. They range from prescription analeptics like Nuvigil and Provigil to supplements with names like True Focus and Alpha Brain (and can be purchased on Amazon). They differ from traditional stimulants like caffeine in that they seek to provide a better enhanced cognition and alertness without the traditional jitters and crashes associated with those stimulants.

And though clinical studies on the effectiveness of smart drugs are limited, initial studies seem to indicate that they do have a marked effect. A study from Imperial College London, found that doctors who were deprived of sleep for a whole night and who had been given a smart drug, modafinil, actually demonstrated improved memory capability and general alertness the following day.

While some scientists argue against the use of cognitive enhancers, saying they effectively amount to steroids for the brain, others argue that they are the natural evolution of human cognition, no different than having a cup of coffee to help boost performance at work.

Still think it’s in the realm of science fiction? Technically, you’re not wrong. The movie “Limitless,” based on the book “The Dark Fields” by Alan Glynn, explores the effects of a fictional nootropic drug. Amidst the thriller-suspense storyline, action, and relationship drama, “Limitless” doesn’t shy away from the question of side effects, ethics, addiction and legality. Granted, it takes an upper class perspective and doesn’t address societally imperative questions like the equality of availability, but that makes it no less interesting or pertinent. The lead character builds success based on using the smart drug, and that, if nothing else, is true to career oriented workers everywhere.

Speaking to Details magazine, Roy Cohen, a career coach in New York City and the author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide, commented, “These drugs are being used in industries where there’s less room for failure, and immediate results are expected. … These people thrive on accomplishment—it’s in their DNA. It’s incredibly seductive to have this potential for guaranteed peak performance.”

If smart drugs can be developed that only have minor side affects attached (unlike steroid abuse we hear about in sports), is it so wrong to try to achieve the peak of human abilities? What could that offer us in the realms of scientific discovery, or art? Time will only tell what society’s opinion will be, but in the meantime, we should be ready to find out.

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