Most of us want to be smarter. There’s an ongoing quest for knowledge and the advancement of our race. We strive not to “work hard but work smart” and forever endeavor to be one step ahead of the competition.

The Question of Ethics

Throughout history, mankind has dreamt of a magic pill that would unleash our true potential of genius. This super pill would not only make us smarter, but it would solve all the problems we ever had. And, to that end –enter the Smart Drugs. Although they may not be all we dreamed they would be, nootropics can definitely give you the edge. And, like Eddy’s ex-brother-in-law (in the movie, “Limitless”) told him, “It helps if you’re already smart.”

If you’re wondering whether or not nootropics are actually effective, consider the fact that universities and other organizations are becoming concerned enough to question the ethics of using them. Is it cheating to pop a nootropic before writing an exam?

Smart Supplements

Smart Drugs are considered to be supplements. Therefore, they aren’t regulated as pharmaceuticals. Furthermore, they’re generally less expensive and easier to obtain than Adderall, for example. In addition, they are not habit-forming because the body doesn’t build up a tolerance to them. Nevertheless, they boost cognition, improve memory and spur creativity.

Academic Steroids

An amateur nootropic researcher, Neyer Guerrero says, “Nootropics are seen as academic steroids, which I think is total bullshit. These aren’t pills that will naturally make you smarter. Nootropics [can] help you to an extent, but you still have to do all the work.”

He believes that nootropics should be considered brain health supplements. Would you consider choline a nootropic or a supplement? It’s a compound that occurs naturally in the brain.

One of the country’s leading bioethicists, Nita Farahany, disagrees. She suggests that the ethics are harder to pin down.

“It’s almost impossible to draw the line that defines what is and isn’t cheating,” she says. “How would you enforce it? Is a student using neurofeedback cheating? Are nootropics cheating? Coffee? Or is it only cheating if they use prescription drugs?”

Using CEDs is Considered Cheating by Some Universities

Farahany teaches at Duke University which has a policy on the use of CED – cognitive-enhancing drugs. Using non-prescription CEDs is considered cheating just as bad as plagiarism. This policy was a result of widespread abuse of Ritalin and Adderall at the university. According to the Center on Young Adult Health and Development, nearly one-third of all students have used prescription drugs as study aids. However, since the policy only includes prescription drugs, the nonprescription CEDs are left open.

It’s also difficult to define what a CED is. Although the Duke University policy specifies Adderall and Ritalin, drugs like Modafinil have also been known to benefit the brain. It could be impossible to know where to draw the line.

Drug Tests at Major eSports

The major eSports leagues are confronting the use of CEDs. Their international tournaments have hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake. Therefore, ESL and the International e-Sports Federation (IeSF) have drug tests for their competitors to make sure they’re not taking performance-enhancing drugs, which include Smart Drugs or CEDs.

“The stakes have risen to the level where it becomes much more tempting to try to gain an edge by taking something that might help you play just a tiny bit better,” says Anna Rozwandowicz, who is a spokesperson for ESL Gaming, the world’s largest eSports league. In the same way a professional cyclist may be tempted to dope to gain the advantage, gamers who compete at top levels may be tempted to take stimulants to speed up their reaction time and endurance during competitive gaming.

At the ESL One Cologne competition in Germany, the competitors were required to give saliva samples backstage. These samples were tested for a list of prohibited substances established by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

What drugs are permitted and what drugs are prohibited are determined by recommendations from the World Anti-Doping Agency.Both ESL and IeSF follow these guidelines. Nevertheless, the question remains of how to decide which substances to include. And, although caffeine is acceptable, for example, the nootropic, Phenylpiracetam is not.

Then there’s the question as to whether nootropics can actually make one more intelligent. Sure, they boost the health of the brain, but if they can’t make you smarter, why would it be unethical to use them?

Scientific Evidence for Benefits of Nootropics

A study at the NYU School of Medicine in 1981 provided evidence that Piracetam had “profound effects” on memory enhancement in rats when taken in combination with other nootropics.

Further, the journal Neuroscience and Behavioral published a report in 2009 that noted the nootropics, Noopept and Piracetam successfully treated post-concussion symptoms.

Other studies show that nootropics improve communication between the hemispheres of the brain and improve recall. However, another study concluded that using nootropics provided no significant gain for test subjects with healthy brains.

Intellectual Equalizers?

On the other hand, if Smart Drugs do work, wouldn’t cognitive-enhancing drugs be intellectual equalizers? Matzner, who runs a biotechnology company, says nootropics can greatly improve one’s memory and ability to learn information. Furthermore, it protects the brain against trauma, and has low toxicity. These drugs can eliminate some of the disadvantages for those who don’t have access to a good education, or quality brain food.

“The way I see it, [these substances] can circumvent some of the deficiencies that have arisen,” says Matzner. “Nootropics can level the playing field by giving people an increased ability to learn.” In a quest to augment his own cognition, Matzner himself ingests 30 to 50 supplements a day.

Farahanysays, “Imagine a medical resident with a forty-eight-hour shift. If it turns out cognitive enhancers could improve their rotation, are they under an obligation to use them? What about if some of their peers are using them? Would you need cognitive enhancement to keep up with everyone else?”

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