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Building a better brain: Could smart drugs be the answer?

By: Sean Yu

nootropic

adjective  no·o·tro·pic  \ ˌnō-ə-ˈtrō-pik, -ˈträp-ik \

Medical Definition of nootropic

:of, relating to, or promoting the enhancement of cognition and memory and the facilitation of learning

  • nootropicdrugs

-Merriam Webster Dictionary

It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie. Perfectly legal drugs that can enhance your mental processes—helping you think faster, concentrate harder and recall information easier—all without major short-term side effects? In a world where everything must be done better and faster, many people have turned to nootropics to maximize their cognitive performance and yield better results in their lives and jobs. But should the use of these kinds of drugs be continued?

To put it simply, yes—although there are certain extents and limitations.

Drugs such as Modafinil, Adderall, Psilocybin and other tongue-tying supplements have been shown to be effective in treating afflictions including anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s and more. However, the usage of many of these “traditional” drugs without a prescription remains illegal.

That’s where nootropics come in. With snappy names such as Racetam and Dragon, they promise an array of specific boosts to areas like memory, confidence, focus and energy. The rise of these drugs has gone under the radar for many years now, leaving a sort of loophole for users to continue their habits as more research is conducted.

While the use of nootropics outside of a medical context is still certainly new, it’s quickly growing. Many users have banded together on sites like longecity.org and Reddit to chronicle and share their experiences. They have even started experimenting with “stacks”—different combinations of nootropics and other supplements tailored to specific needs or tasks.

Supplementation to improve mental facilities isn’t a particularly new practice over the course of human history. For centuries, people all over the world have used things like coffee, tea and even early forms of cocaine to improve their focus and energy levels. Nootropics themselves have been around as early as the 1960’s.

However, attention to these “smart drugs” has been slowly but surely increasing over the years. With the release of movies and TV shows centered around “ascending” the capabilities of the mind—including “Limitless” and “Lucy”—as well as the emergence of businesspeople and entrepreneurs who openly use and condone the usage of such supplements, the apparent message has been clear: Pushing the limits of the brain is part of the future.

That being said, there is a time and place for everything, and nootropics are no exception. While I do believe that the use of these supplements should be explored further, I don’t believe that the practice of consuming nootropics should be something that people become too reliant on, especially since there has been little to no research on the long-term effects of these drugs. Like virtually all forms of medication, there’s still an inherent physical risk that comes with these kinds of drugs.

Neither OSU nor Ohio drug policies have much legislation outlawing the sale and consumption of these drugs. The legislation that is out there focuses more on regulations regarding nootropics providers and retailers. As such, usage of these supplements falls into the somewhat dangerous category of individual judgement and discretion.

The use of nootropics in an academic setting is where things get even grayer. Although I’d like to say that the use of these drugs should be outright banned in classroom, or at least exam, situations, I know that any sort of prohibitions of drugs would be extremely difficult to monitor or enforce. Caffeinated beverages are already a common tool used to improve focus and energy, so in terms of consumable study aids, where should the line be drawn?

I’m not going to pretend I have a clear answer. However, I do believe that the purpose of school—to learn and develop knowledge—should not be tainted by the abundance of mind-altering drugs, even if they may increase productivity. Nootropics are designed to enhance what you’re already capable of, so it’s important to build a strong base before jumping to these new heights. The newness of such drugs also makes them a rather risky prospect for overall health, which is a definite source of concern. Nevertheless, the idea of nootropics is an enticing enough field that is worth further investigation.

In the future, it isn’t hard to see nootropics becoming more common in everyday life as research and awareness regarding these drugs is increased. For better or worse, it is our desire to self-improve—that constant drive to change, adapt and grow in all that we do and all that we are—which will push the progression of these drugs further. Perhaps mastering the brain is simply the next step in our growth.