Are 'smart pills' the best way to stay sharp?

Story highlights

  • People in high-performance industries increasingly turn to cognitive enhancement drugs, known as nootropics
  • Advocates argue they can improve memory and focus, among other benefits
  • Expert studies have shown few negative side effects and areas suited to the use of such substances
  • Pressure on employers, regulators to take a firm position on contentious issue

Smart Business explores the ways companies are thinking smart to thrive in our digitized world.

(CNN)How did you wake yourself up this morning? Perhaps through a morning run, or hitting the yoga mat. You might favor good old caffeine, or new-age nutritional supplements.

Tom Rice, a London-based film producer in his late 20s, has a new routine. It includes a little fish oil, a shot of espresso, and 800mg of the cognitive-enhancement drug Piracetam.
    "It enables you to think quicker and feel sharper," says Rice. "Although I've only started recently so it's hard to quantify the full effects."
    Rice has held a longstanding interest in nootropics -- substances that improve brain function -- as a means of enhancing his performance in a demanding business that requires tireless application.
    "I have previously taken Modafinil (also known as Provigil) and found it incredibly useful when I really need to focus... when I have a lot of practical stuff to do, like writing emails and reading scripts."
    The producer emphasizes the value of healthy sleep and balanced diet, but through research and networking, has also developed an open attitude to cognitive enhancement.
    "I don't want to be on the frontier trying designer drugs but there are interesting developments that are worth keeping tabs on. Piracetam has been around since the 1970s, and from reading the accounts and the research, I felt the risk was negligible.
    "I'm not desperate to find solutions to the problems I'm facing, but at the same time I'd love to find something that makes me function more effectively if it has a track record showing it is safe and effective."
    A growing trend
    Rice's approach is very far from unusual. "Smart drugs" that first entered the market in the mid-20th century, often through army experiments to keep fighters alert, have now reached saturation point in education, the start-up scene and many of the most demanding industries.
    Studies have shown improved memory and focus, while establishing few negative side effects. In the US and much of Europe, nootropics are typically available only through prescription, but enthusiasts find willing suppliers from overseas.
    Dave Asprey, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur and now CEO of The Bulletproof Executive, hopes to normalize their use and says they are already commonplace at the highest levels of business.
    "When I meet people through work who run companies have many zeroes in their bank accounts, it's uncommon that they don't have a baggie full of supplements. They say 'this is what I take for my brain.'"
    The substances are more effective than caffeine, and represent progress based on improved understanding of biology and brain function, Asprey argues.
    "Intelligent people want to control their own biology. We understand neural pathways better so we can create custom supplements that help the brain work better, and improve energy so that tasks that required drudgery don't seem so hard...Cognitive burdens can become effortless."
    "There is great evidence that natural and pharmaceutical supplements can increase energy, and measurably change your ability to focus and relax."
    The CEO cites "entrepreneurs and disruptive innovators" as demographics that have been quick to adopt and benefit from cognitive enhancement, as well as people over 50 that want to retain their mental sharpness.
    Challenge to business culture
    The growing spread of these substances create conundrums for business and employers.
    "Where can you draw the line between Red Bull, six cups of coffee and a prescription drug that keeps you more alert," says Michael Schrage of the MIT Center for Digital Business, who has studied the phenomenon. "You can't draw the line meaningfully - some organizations have cultures where it is expected that employees go the extra mile to finish an all-nighter. "
    "If you work at a company with espresso machines all over the place I don't think your boss will be surprised if you have prescription for an amphetamine."
    Schrage associates the spread of such substances with "high performance industries" such as trading, investment banking, journalism and software development. He views them as within a holistic field of performance enhancement that includes big data analytics, traditional nutrition and behavior -- anything for an edge.
    "For the companies it's a question of culture -- do they care more about the person or performance? Some only care about the quality of work and anything else is your (the employee's) issue."
    Schrage adds that given the global race between businesses, it would be a risk for US companies to crack down on substances that competitors abroad could benefit from.
    Risks and rewards
    Neuroscientist and leading cognitive enhancement expert Professor Barbara Sahakian of the University of Cambridge feel there is value in the field, albeit tempered with uncertainty.
    "I'm keen for government to look at this closely because some of them could be useful. Modafinil is licensed in the US for shift work because it keeps people awake and can help prevent accidents."
    "Modafinil seems more effective and efficient with lower side effects than caffeine, and there has been a lot of discussion about the safety of young people drinking a lot of Red Bull...if people are going to enhance themselves to stay awake longer it would be better to have safe methodologies."
    Sahakian would like to see further studies into the long term effects of Modafinil and other substances on healthy users, which could enable it to become more accessible, rather than the current supply route typically from unregulated international suppliers that may use dubious ingredients.
    The professor's studies with impaired users have found that Modafinil does improve cognitive function, in areas such as memory retention and task-related motivation. Initial follow-ups with healthy volunteers have shown similarly encouraging results.
    Results also showed suitability is heightened for certain roles: "We found it improved the ability to start down one pathway but then find a new solution, which is particularly relevant to entrepreneurs."
    In addition to further safety tests, Sahakian believes ethical issues must be taken into account.
    "There could be concerns about coercion. If these drugs are normalized within a company, would everyone be expected to take them?"
    Yet a landmark British academy report into the effect of enhancement in the workplace addressed the question from the perspective of equality -- whether all employees would have fair access to the drugs and their potential benefits.
    Whether they are to be embraced or opposed, as smart pills continue to cut a swathe through the working world, it is no longer possible to ignore them.