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Limitless: Pharmaceutically-Enhanced Intelligence (from chapter 5 of Films from the Future)

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting weekly excerpts from Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies. The book can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com

Chapter Five

“I don’t have delusions of grandeur, I have an actual recipe for grandeur.”— Eddie Morra


In2004, the academic and medical doctor Anjan Chatterjee wrote a review of what he termed “Cosmetic Neurology.” He was far from the first person to write about the emergence and ethics of cognitive enhancers, but the piece caught my attention because of its unusual title.

Chatterjee’s title has its roots in cosmetic surgery, an area fraught with medical angst as surgeons weigh up the pros and cons of desirable, but physiologically unnecessary, surgical interventions. Through the article, Chatterjee grapples with similar challenges as he weighs the benefits and downsides of treatments that don’t cure disease but, rather, extend abilities.

I’m not sure the term “cosmetic neurology” works. “Cosmetic” has an air of frivolity about it that is far removed from the issues Chatterjee is grappling with here. These include the use of substances to compensate for perceived deficiencies in human performance,

such as the ability of pilots to remain alert and perform at their best. In the article, Chatterjee explores a growing number of pharmaceuticals that are known to affect the brain’s operations in ways that can improve aspects of performance, including memory and concentration. And, while he struggles with the ethics of cognitive enhancers, he wonders whether a “better brain” may, one day, be seen as an inalienable right.

It could be argued, of course, that this has already happened in a world that’s caffeine-fueled by Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Tim Hortons, and numerous other retail chains offering over-the-counter mental stimulants. For as long as people have known that some substances affect the brain, they’ve been finding ways to make use of these effects, and caffeine is an obvious poster child here. Take the nineteenth-century French writer Honoré de Balzac, for instance. He was well-known for a prolific coffee habit, writing with rather obvious self-awareness that, after drinking the substance,

“[T]he cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s order, sharpshooters sight and fire…”

(Taken from “The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug,” by Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer (Routledge, 2002).

In fact, reading his work, it’s hard to avoid wondering just how caffeined-up he was.

Although caffeine in the form of tea and coffee is deeply socially normalized these days, there’s a growing market for high-dosage shots to keep the brain alert. Visiting our on-campus one-stop store, there’s a whole array of caffeine-enriched energy drinks and shots that students (and presumably faculty) can use to keep their brains alert. But these are just the visible tip of the iceberg of smart drugs being used on educational campuses the world over.

For a number of years now, students in particular have been using substances like Adderall, Ritalin, and Provigil to give their brains a boost. These are all regulated substances that are designed for purposes other than getting through college, or finishing the latest class assignment. But that isn’t stopping what is purportedly a thriving black market in pharmaceutical smart pills.

Adderall is intended for use in treating conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. But there’s a perception that it also increases memory performance and concentration in healthy adults. Ritalin (or methylphenidate) is another drug used to treat ADHD that is also used off-label for memory and concentration boosts. Provigil (or modafinil), on the other hand, is aimed specifically at treating sleep disorders, and is used off-label to increase wakefulness and counter fatigue by otherwise healthy adults. It’s also used by the military in a number of countries to keep soldiers alert, and has even reportedly been used by astronauts to stave off fatigue.

These and other prescription drugs show measurable effects on concentration and wakefulness in some studies. But their precise impact on performance often depends on who uses them, how they use them, and what they use them for. And in most cases, there are tradeoffs. These may take the form of unwanted short-term side effects and inadequate performance boosts. In some instances, there may actually be long-term impacts on cognitive performance, although the research here is patchy. Yet, despite this, there’s been a steady stream of news articles over the past few years suggesting frequent use among students and professionals in jobs where being smart matters.

That said, it’s surprisingly tough to get a hard fix on how prevalent this behavior is. A number of studies suggest that up to 50 percent of students in various countries are using some form of artificial means to increase concentration and performance, but these include caffeine-based drinks and tobacco. The number using off-label drugs like Modafinil are just a few percent in many of these studies. Despite the published data, though, it’s not uncommon to come across occasional use among students. A few years ago, for instance, I was discussing smart drugs as part of a project with a group of colleagues. At one point, we turned to our student research assistant (someone I didn’t know) and asked whether her peers really were using these substances. She sheepishly reached into her bag and bought out a small pill, “just for when I need it,” she said.

It’s not just students, though. I regularly come across rumors of faculty members and researchers occasionally using artificial aids to finish a grant proposal or to put an academic publication to bed. In 2008, Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir published the delightfully-titled commentary “Professor’s little helper” in the journal Nature. In their piece, they noted that:

“In academia, we know that a number of our scientific colleagues in the United States and the United Kingdom already use modafinil to counteract the effects of jetlag, to enhance productivity or mental energy, or to deal with demanding and important intellectual challenges.”

The article prompted Nature to conduct a straw poll of its readers. One in five of the survey’s respondents admitted to using Ritalin, modafinil, or beta-blockers to aid their focus, concentration, or memory.

Of course, one downside of this academic brain-hacking is that none of these substances are risk-free. Making the decision to use one of these “Professor’s little helpers” to get ahead of your peers requires some careful balancing of short-term gains against potential downsides. These could include headaches, diarrhea, agitation, sleeplessness, odd behavior, hair loss, and the need for increasing doses to get the same effect.

Because the side effects of off-label prescription drugs use aren’t widely tracked, it’s hard to tell just how safe or otherwise their use is, although the indications are that moderate or occasional use isn’t likely to lead to serious or lasting problems. But this uncertainty has led to experimentation around less restricted — and often less studied — substances in the quest for the perfect cognitive enhancer, the one that boosts your brain’s abilities without any unwanted downsides.

In1973, the Romanian researcher and medical doctor Cornelius Giurgea published an article on a new drug called piracetam. What was unusual about piracetam was its seeming inertness compared to other pharmaceutical drugs. According to Giurgea, even at high doses, it showed “no sedation or tranquilization, no stimulation, no interference with synaptic transmitters, no acute or long-term toxicity…no cortical or subcortical EEG changes, no interference with limbic after-discharges, reticular sensory or direct arousal threshold” and “no changes of the cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal systems.” In other words, it did pretty much nothing. Except that, based on Giurgea’s research, it protected against severe brain hypoxia (oxygen deprivation), and it enhanced learning and memory.

To Giurgea, piracetam was a unique class of drug that enhanced the integration of evolutionarily important brain functions like memory and learning, without obviously deleterious side effects. He considered this class of drug so unique that he coined a new term for it, from the root “noos,” referring to “mind,” and “tropein,” meaning “towards.” And so “nootropics” were born…

This chapter from Films from the Future examines the science, together with the ethical and responsible development and use, of smart drugs, and begins to unpack what we mean by “intelligence”, and why we value it so highly.

Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies is available for pre-order at Amazon.com.


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