Universiteit Leiden

An ethical nootropic

An ethical nootropic Image courtesy of Tanya Antonia Panagia

Nootropics have been used in a variety of contexts to improve cognitive performance and provide additional alertness in long lasting activities. Smart drugs often cause a debate over their side effects but none of them has kept people from using them.

Students, office workers, soldiers and Bradley Cooper in “Limitless”, all seem to have one thing in common, the pursuit of a performance enhancer.

Staying up late to work on a task for next day’s deadline is something that most of us have experienced. There are plenty of stimulants available in everyone’s cupboards but still, sometimes we look for something stronger and with a longer lasting effect. That is when pills look tempting.

Nootropics, or smart drugs, are a category of cognition enhancing drugs designed to improve wakefulness, creativity, memory or motivation in healthy populations. Modafinil is one of those. It is a eugeroic drug used to treat narcolepsy, shift work sleep disorder or excessive daytime sleepiness but it is far more popular as a wakefulness promoting drug and it is kind of special. Modafinil is not addictive, it can, actually, help get rid of drug addiction, it has almost no side effects and it works.

If you visit a campus, somewhere around the exam period, and ask students whether they are going to use a smart drug, you will often hear about modafinil. A smart choice if you ask me. A large number of studies confirm the benefits on attention, executive functions and learning. It is not well known though what happens after long term consumption, but in any case, what matters is to complete the exam successfully or hand in the report on time. In addition, it does not affect mood considerably, it only helps get the job done. However, enhanced performance should not be confused with misconception of the actual performance. Overconfidence, as an effect of modafinil ingestion under certain circumstances, on one’s own performance, is just around the corner.

The enhancing effects of modafinil on cognition wouldn’t go unnoticed by the armed forces. Militaries of several countries switch from amphetamines to modafinil as the drug of choice to help troops deal with sleep deprivation in long term missions. The US air force, for example, uses only modafinil as the drug for fatigue management. One can easily assume a potential for this cognitive enhancer if used wisely. For example, rescue teams can be more efficient when time is limited, and resting is not an option. Notably, in these contexts, the consequences of a possible overconfidence effect can be detrimental.

Despite the enhancing effects and the limited reports on side effects, it is still a drug and overdosing can have from mild to severe aftereffects. Headaches, nausea, anxiety and dizziness are some of those. An overdose of 4500mg might not be lethal but when 1 pill or dose is around 200mg, we can only imagine the level of sleep disturbances one will experience. Since it is a drug, it should not be used alongside with other substances, such as alcohol, or other medication and, also, a sudden halt of consumption can cause withdrawal symptoms.

All in all, modafinil seems to be an ideal smart drug with all its beneficial effects and it can be utilized in a variety of environments either for medical purposes or for cognitive enhancement. So, if you want to boost your performance with a minimum risk of side effects, resist sleepiness or gain relentless focus, modafinil should be your pick.

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