THE PILLS THAT MAKE YOU SMARTER
Esquire’s Will Hersey tests the new “smart drugs” that claim to boost brainpower, concentration and productivity. To his (and our editor’s) joy, they actually work
Low-level exhaustion. Thickening brain fog. A to-do list longer than the Kyoto Protocol. It’s just another day at the office. There’s caffeine of course, but as performance-enhancers go, it’s entry-level stuff, a weak, outdated crutch for the over-stretched and the chronically sleep-deprived. It was time to step up to the big table. Neuro-enhancement.
Your own addled brain has probably read about them — a new generation of drugs developed and prescribed for cognitive disorders such as ADHD, Alzheimer’s and narcolepsy, that are becoming increasingly coveted for their “non-medicinal” benefits. What Margaret Talbot described in The New Yorker as “drugs that high-functioning and over-committed people take to become higher functioning and more over-committed”.
One in five respondents for an online survey by Nature admitted to using cognitive-enhancing drugs, acquired through “generous” GP prescriptions or internet chemists with addresses in the Cayman Islands. From students on Ritalin (an amphetamine derivative) for exam cramming, to academics and businessman using Modafinil (a drug marketed at narcoleptics) for jet lag or as a pre-meeting pick-me-up. This was more than a ProPlus upgrade.
“With Modafinil, I have done studies in healthy volunteers that show quite marked improvements in cognitive function — that’s planning, problem-solving, memory improvements and executive functions,” Barbara Sahakian, a clinical neuropsychologist at Cambridge University who works specifically in the field of cognitive enhancing drugs, told me. She had me at “marked improvements”.
Was this the dawn of what Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University Of Pennsylvania, called “cosmetic neurology” — a lifestyle market which would help the “worried well” perform at their optimal level?
With a two-week supply of Modafinil on my desk, I was about to join the party. Its apparent lack of addictive potential and side effects had anecdotally made it the mature alternative to the moreish Ritalin, but it remained relatively unresearched. In fact, no one seemed to know exactly how it worked. But any question marks over the wisdom of a self-administered experiment on my one and only brain evaporated when put against the potential benefits — with a week of intense and focused effort I could clear my backlog and regain control. Stress levels would fall off. I’d have more energy and time. And what if they do make you smarter? Perhaps I’d take up an instrument, start an online business. Maybe, finally, I’d come to appreciate the films of Wim Wenders.
I was getting ahead of myself. The first pill, knocked back with a flourish at 9.30am, produced no discernible effect. One articulate phone call perhaps. A decision made more quickly than anticipated. My will for its effects may have contributed to a solid afternoon of focused work, but it was impossible to attribute anything directly.
Day two. A day that called for a double dose of the 100mg pills. Again, the first didn’t appear to touch the sides. Within an hour of taking the second, however, everything changed. First came a subtle but buzzy high. I realised something was awry when I gave a colleague an enthusiastic “thumbs up”.
Next, came a powerful desire for social interaction. Leaving my burgeoning inbox behind despite my internal protestations, I embarked on an office walkabout as if I were the host of a Sunday barbecue party.
In a meeting, I felt over-confident and excitable, having to stop myself from throwing in unwanted one-liners and complimenting people on jeans I’d seen countless times before. Is this what “sassy” meant? Or had I just become annoying? For me at least it felt good, except for one small point. The last thing I wanted to do was any work.
Day three. Having had just four hours of broken sleep as an experiment, here was the breakthrough I was waiting for. Within an hour of “dropping”, the yawning stopped, the exhaustion evaporated, the post-lunch crash never came. This must be what it felt like to have nine hours’ sleep. This pattern continued, the Modafinil coming into its own as a subtle but remarkable restorative, gradually correcting my widening sleep deficit. Whether this amounted to a tangible “enhancement” in intelligence was less obvious, but as a performance improver, the attraction was clear.
“Some people aren’t desperate for a huge effect, they just want something to counteract jet lag or stay awake longer so they can finish off a piece of work before a deadline,” says Sahakian. No wonder she can see the day when a lifestyle market exists.
“It’s really pushing us to choose as a society how we feel about healthy people taking these drugs if the side effects are quite minimal,” she says. “Surgeons might be able to sustain their attention for longer without tremors. What would have been the societal benefits if Einstein had had a cognitive enhancer?”
On the flip side are moral issues — access, competitive advantage and messing with our personalities. Would it widen the gap between those who could afford them and those who couldn’t? As Francis Fukuyama writes in Our Posthuman Future: Consequences Of The Biotechnology Revolution, “The original purpose of medicine is to heal the sick, not turn healthy people into gods.”
My low point was a dramatic energy crash — it was like a plug had been pulled. A night of vivid flashing imagery in place of sleep relegated the pills to occasional use only. For those who are exhausted but unwilling to take the plunge, there are alternatives. “You can always try getting more sleep, connecting with others, learning new things throughout life,” says Sahakian. “All have been shown to have cognitive effects.” Sleep. Maybe she was on to something.
Launched in 1998, Modafinil sales between 1999 and 2005 went from $25m to $575m. The US military has approved Modafinil for use in certain airforce missions. It is only available on prescription in the UK, but as the drug itself is legal, it is legal to buy from online foreign suppliers, who charge £2-3 per tablet.