What Would Happen If We All Took Smart Drugs?

Honoré de Balzac was a great believer in the cerebral power of coffee. The renowned French writer had a punishing schedule – every evening, he would scour the streets of Paris for a café that was open past midnight, then write until the morning. It is said that he would consume 50 cups of his favourite drink in a single day. Eventually, he graduated to eating whole spoonfuls of coffee grinds, which he felt worked especially well on an empty stomach. As he put it, after a mouthful of gritty coffee, “Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground and the battle rages.” It may have worked. Balzac was prolific and produced nearly 100 novels, novellas and plays in his lifetime. He died of heart failure at the meagre age of 51.

For centuries, all workers have had to get them through the daily slog is boring old caffeine. But no more. The latest generation has been experimenting with a new range of substances, which they believe will supercharge their mental abilities and help them get ahead. Some of these so-called “smart drugs” are already remarkably popular. One recent survey involving tens of thousands of people found that 30% of Americans who responded had taken them in the last year. It seems as though we may soon all be partaking – and it’s easy to get carried away with the consequences. Will this new batch of intellectual giants lead to dazzling, space-age inventions? Or perhaps an explosion in economic growth? Might the working week become shorter, as people become more efficient?

Mind-bending?

To answer these questions, first, we need to get to grips with what’s on offer. The original “smart drug” is piracetam, which was discovered by the Romanian scientist Corneliu Giurgea in the early 1960s. At the time, he was looking for a chemical that could sneak into the brain and make people feel sleepy. After months of testing, he came up with “Compound 6215.” It was safe, it had very few side effects – and it didn’t work. The drug didn’t send anyone into a restful slumber and seemed to work in the opposite way to that intended. Piracetam did have one intriguing side-effect, however. When patients took it for at least a month, it led to substantial improvements to their memories. Giurgea immediately recognised the significance of his findings, and coined the term “nootropic,” which combines the Greek words for “mind” and “bending.”

Today piracetam is a favourite with students and young professionals looking for a way to boost their performance, though decades after Giurgea’s discovery, there still isn’t much evidence that it can improve the mental abilities of healthy people. It’s a prescription drug in the UK, though it’s not approved for medical use by the US Food and Drug Administration and can’t be sold as a dietary supplement either. Texas-based entrepreneur and podcaster Mansal Denton takes phenylpiracetam, a close relative of piracetam originally developed by the Soviet Union as a medication for cosmonauts, to help them endure the stresses of life in space. “I have a much easier time articulating certain things when I take it, so I typically do a lot of recording [of podcasts] on those days,” he says. This scenario is fairly typical of smart drugs. Though many have a passionate following of regular users, often their benefits on the brain are either unproven or minimal. Which brings us to the least exciting possible consequence of a workforce saturated with them: nothing would be any different.

Brain gains?

Take creatine monohydrate. This dietary supplement consists of a white powder, which is usually mixed into sugary drinks or milkshakes, or taken in pill form. The chemical is found naturally in the brain, and there is now some evidence that taking some extra creatine can improve your working memory and intelligence. But though it’s relatively new on the scene with ambitious young professionals, creatine has a long history with bodybuilders, who have been taking it for decades to improve their muscle gains. In the US, sports supplements are a multibillion-dollar industry – and the majority contain creatine. According to a survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs last year, 22% of adults said they had taken a sports supplement in the last year. If creatine were going to have a major impact in the workplace, surely we would have seen some signs of this already.

Of course, there are drugs out there with more transformative powers. “I think it’s very clear that some do work,” says Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist based at Stanford University. There’s one category of smart drugs which has received more attention from scientists and biohackers – those looking to alter their biology and abilities – than any other. These are the stimulants. Two increasingly popular options are amphetamines and methylphenidate, which are prescription drugs sold under the brand names Adderall and Ritalin. In the United States, both are approved as treatments for people with ADHD, a behavioural disorder which makes it hard to sit still or concentrate. Now they’re also widely abused by people in highly competitive environments, looking for a way to remain focused on specific tasks.

Amphetamines have a long track record as smart drugs, from the workaholic mathematician Paul Erdös, who relied on them to get through 19-hour maths binges, to the writer Graham Greene, who used them to write two books at once. More recently, there are plenty of anecdotal accounts in magazines about their widespread use in certain industries, such as journalism, the arts and finance. Those who have taken them swear they do work – though not in the way you might think. Back in 2015, a review of the evidence found that their impact on intelligence is “modest.” But most people don’t take them to improve their mental abilities. Instead, they take them to improve their mental energy and motivation to work. (Both drugs also come with serious risks and side effects – more on those later). One consequence of taking stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin is the ability to stick with mentally taxing tasks, especially those with a clear reward in sight at the end. One study found that people considered a maths task “interesting” when they were on the latter.

If the entire workforce were to start doping with prescription stimulants, it seems likely that they would have two major effects. Firstly, people would stop avoiding unpleasant tasks, and weary office workers who had perfected the art of not-working-at-work would start tackling the office filing system, keeping spreadsheets up to date, and enthusiastically attending dull meetings. And secondly, offices would become significantly more competitive. This fits with the consensus about the long-term side effects of smart drugs more generally, though whether it’s a good thing is debatable. “There seems to be a growing percentage of intellectual workers in Silicon Valley and Wall Street using nootropics. They are akin to intellectual, professional athletes where the stakes and competition is high,” says Geoffrey Woo, the CEO and co-founder of nutrition company HVMN, which produces a line of nootropic supplements. Denton agrees. “I think nootropics just make things more and more competitive. The ease of access to Chinese, Russian intellectual capital in the United States, for example, is increasing. And there is a willingness to get any possible edge that’s available.” But there would also be significant downsides. Amphetamines are structurally similar to crystal meth – a potent, highly addictive recreational drug which has ruined countless lives and can be fatal. Both Adderall and Ritalin are known to be addictive, and there are already numerous reports of workers who struggled to give them up. There are also side effects, such as nervousness, anxiety, insomnia, stomach pains, and even hair loss, among others.

Finally, a workforce high on stimulants wouldn’t necessarily be more productive overall. “One thinks ‘are these things dangerous?’ – and that’s important to consider in the short term,” says Huberman. “But there’s also a different question, which is: ‘How do you feel the day afterwards?’ Maybe you’re hyper-focused for four hours, 12 hours, but then you’re below baseline for 24 or 48.” Given these drawbacks, it seems fair to speculate that prescription-strength stimulants aren’t likely to be changing the world anytime soon. But there is a milder version out there, which you can buy over the counter in nearly any café, newsagent, or supermarket: caffeine. In the United States, people consume more coffee than a fizzy drink, tea and juice combined. Alas, no one has ever estimated its impact on economic growth – but plenty of studies have found myriad other benefits. Somewhat embarrassingly, caffeine has been proven to be better than the caffeine-based commercial supplement that Woo’s company came up with, which is currently marketed at $17.95 for 60 pills.

Credit: Zaria Gorvett for The BBC, 7 September 2018.