Smart Pills: 'Steroids' For Brainiacs?

Students around the world are experimenting with prescription pharmaceuticals to get an edge on their classmates. So-called "smart pills" are thought to enhance cognitive function and enhance alertness over a longer period of time; just like elite athletes trying to get that one-tenth of one percent advantage, bright students are hacking their neurochemistry with the same goal.

A 2005 study published in the journal Psychopharmacology documented the effect of the Alzheimer's drug Donepezil on 30 healthy male students. The study showed that taking the drug for 30 days significantly improved short term memory and some long term memory faculties.

Other prescription drugs that have been used for cognitive enhancement include Adderall (originally aimed at people with attention-deficit disorder) and Provigil (for narcoleptics). The effect of these drugs on healthy people varies; concentration, alertness, focus and short-term memory are all affected (usually positively, a useful aid for students cramming for exams).

According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, as many as 2.25 million middle school and high school students make use of Ritalin - not for attention deficit disorder (for which it is FDA-approved) - but for academic performance enhancement.

According to neurologist and researcher Richard Restak, as many as ninety percent of senior business school students in his study reported at least occasional use of such smart pills as Adderall, Ritalin and Strattera.

People are seeking smart foods as well. Sales of fish in British university towns have reportedly gone up, as reports that salmon, trout and cod are rich in omega 3 oils that reputedly aid in brain development.

Smart pills were also on the agenda at an education conference earlier this year at Bristol University. Paul Howard-Jones, the conference's organiser at the Graduate School of Education, said:

"This is science fact not science fiction. There is likely to be a big market for these drugs and as educators we need to be more informed about it. What are the ethical implications and questions? Will there be pressures to use them in the future?"
(From Smarter drugs for all?)

Science fiction authors are already aware of this trend. Daniel Pearlman, a professor of English at University of Rhode Island, wrote a science fiction novel on this topic in 2003. Memini is about a century-distant future in which the world is run by amnesiacs; the world is divided into "tekkies" and "oldfolks." The tekkie elite owes their political and economic preeminence to smart pills, which increase their capacity for manipulating data, but gradually destroy their personal memories. Oldfolks shun the pill and refuse to give up their sense of tradition, history, and morality.

Science fiction fans (and stressed students who think that if they just didn't need to sleep, they could study more) should also take a look at a-som, an antisomnolence drug that actually makes sleep unnecessary, from Shuteye for the Timebroker, a 2006 story by Paul Di Filippo. Take a look at A dose of genius and Smart Drugs for more information.

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