Brain Doping: A Quiet Revolution

The use of ‘smart drugs,’ or nootropics, to enhance mental performance is becoming more widespread, writes Zaria Gorvett. But should we be prescribing them to our military… and children?

AsianScientist (Oct. 1, 2012) – It was 1908, London, and the crowd in the packed Olympic stadium anticipated their champion. Spectators may have glimpsed the pallid, yellow face of Dorado Pietri as he stumbled towards the stadium. He teetered forward, fell, ran the wrong way.

After ten minutes of excruciating confusion, he was finally helped across the finish line. The athlete was said to have fueled his remarkable ordeal with atropine and strychnine, both toxic endurance-boosting drugs. Pietri was eventually disqualified for receiving assistance, not doping.

Strikingly, until 1967, loading up with stimulants during races was perfectly legal.

We may look back in amazement at the absurd rules of the early Olympics, but is our retrospective superiority premature? What if such lapses of regulation were on-going? A new kind of competitive doping may be at its turning point: drugs that increase mental performance are becoming increasingly effective and popular. As usual, legislation is far behind.

‘Smart drugs,’ or nootropics, are drugs that enhance mental functions such as intelligence, memory, and attention span. They come in many forms, including herbal extracts, foods, and pharmaceuticals.

The search for a panacea to fix intellectual deficits is ancient, and yet progress has remained elusive. Worlds in which a daily pill is the passport to greater-than-human-superintelligence are restricted to science fiction. However, this future of limitless intellectual resources, termed a ‘technological singularity,’ may be closer than you think.

Last year, the world carelessly consumed millions of tons of psycho-stimulants. In fact, if you live in China, your personal drug habit is probably responsible for as much as 0.82 kilograms of that total, according to 2009 statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

But there’s no need for an introspective crisis; the preparation in question is tea. China is the world’s largest consumer of this potent herb, which contains the nootropic chemical caffeine. Caffeine has physical and psychological effects, and can improve cognitive function in people who are tired.

In addition to tea and coffee, products that claim to improve mental functions are abundant, such as omega-3 fatty acids, brain training software, and self-help courses. In China, ginseng, ginkgo biloba, and gotu kola have all been employed for their potential brain-enhancing properties.

Night owl soldiers

There is almost no data about the prevalence of usage in Asia, and little is known of the effects of long-term use in healthy individuals. In an informal online survey, the scientific publisher Nature Publishing Group found that one in five respondents had used drugs for non-medical reasons to stimulate their concentration or memory.

In October last year, the South China Morning Post published an article about a new cognition-enhancing drug. The pill, named ‘Night Eagle,’ was ostensibly developed for the People’s Liberation Army to keep soldiers awake for up to 72 hours. Crucially, the drug helps soldiers to maintain mental function and alertness despite a lack of sleep. The hesitancy of the Chinese government to disclose the ingredient has led to rumors that the drug is actually a re-branding of another nootropic, modafinil.

Research into treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and sleeping disorders, has yielded some exciting new intelligence-enhancing drugs.

Modafinil is part of this new generation. Originally developed by Professor Michel Jouvet at the French pharmaceutical company Lafon Laboratories in the 1980’s, the compound began as an experimental treatment for narcolepsy. This drug has been shown to improve alertness and attention span, and enhance some aspects of working memory. The effects are subtle, but have led to intensive online marketing as a ‘smart drug,’ and widespread off-label use.

The medical implications of widespread use of a potentially harmful drug are alarming. According to the manufacturer’s website, it is not known if Provigil (trade name for modafinil) is safe or if it works in children under the age of 17. Professor Barbara Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, wrote in an article for the University of Cambridge website: “…we certainly need to be concerned about the use of these drugs by healthy children and adolescents where their brains are still in development.” One danger is the occasionally dubious composition of drugs bought on the Internet.

Smarter kids

Is it OK to take drugs that could improve performance in academic examinations? Indeed, the use of drugs among students to achieve an edge is controversial and riddled with ethical hurdles. In highly competitive environments where even a small advantage could prove significant, it is easy to imagine that students may rapidly become subject to coercion.

Research published by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2011 found that two thirds of the Chinese public thought that parents put too much pressure on their children to excel academically. If doping is regulated in the future it will be a challenge; routine drug testing before exams may be necessary, and so the cat-and-mouse game of detection between dopers and regulators would begin.

Despite the risks and concerns, cognition enhancing drugs may have many useful applications. Their employment by doctors, the military, and pilots to improve alertness and concentration for prolonged periods of time is already being considered. Nootropics could become an important part of man’s ascension to superintelligence, jointly with other technologies such as genetic engineering, bioengineering, and mind uploading.

For the moment, the issues surrounding cognition enhancement drugs may be hypothetical, but more effective drugs are on the horizon. There is an urgent need for the supervision of current drug usage, and a legal framework to make the use of future drugs fair. Studies into the safety of their long-term use are also essential. The potential for their widespread and intensive use – and abuse – may affect an entire generation.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Zaria Gorvett is a freelance science writer based in the UK. She graduated with a bachelors degree in biological science from the University of Exeter, UK and a masters degree in medical microbiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist