It’s “Transhuman Week” this week at the Wired UK website, with writers exploring “the ethical, medical and social issues associated with using technology to enhance the human body and mind.” You should probably go to Wired and check out the whole series (do you really want to be left behind when we all start becoming “limitless” superhumans? I didn’t think so) but to get you started, here’s a little primer on one of my favorite forms of The Future Is Now: Nootropics, aka “smart drugs.”
As Wired’s Oliva Solin notes:
The line between therapy and enhancement is a blurry one. There seems to be no clear distinction between existing accepted practices such as cosmetic surgery, the prescription of anti-depressants and ADHD medication and emerging ones such as genetic modification, nanotechnology and nootropics.
“Nootropics” is the term used to apply to a whole category of cognitive capability enhancers, including drugs, dietary supplements and vitamins that can boost memory, motivation, attention, alertness and more. The word nootropic comes from two Greek words: noús (mind) and trepein (to bend or turn). Some are in widespread use already — Adderall,* Ritalin, various Alzheimer’s treatments –but here are four you may not know about:
Around since the 1960s, this is generally considered the first of the smart drugs (also, one of the most studied). It’s said to boost memory, focus and blood flow to the brain, and has been used in treating anxiety, depression and dyslexia. See this article from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies for detailed info.
Other names: Piracetam is sold under various brand names, including “Nootropil,” Biotropil and “Lucetam” in Europe, “Noostan” in Argentina, “Dinagen” in Mexico and “Nootropyl” in the United States.
[Disclaimer: All of these drugs and supplements carry possible side effects and risks. I'm not going to get into those here, but you should do your own research and/or talk to a doctor before taking any, and be diligent about dosage and interaction instructions.]
2. Huperzine A
An over-the-counter dietary supplement, huperzine A is derived from Chinese club moss (a plant used in traditional Chinese medicine as an antinflammatory). It’s said to promote memory and learning by protecting acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps with learning, memory and other cognitive processes.
This is another non-prescription, neurotransmitter-supporting dietary supplement. L-Tyrosine is a type of amino acid that’s inportant the production of dopamine and norepeinephrine, as well as for syntheis of thyroid hormones. It occurs naturally in foods such as fish, almonds, avocado, milk, yogurt, lima beans, sesame seeds, soy and bananas. Because of its role in regulating neurotransmitters and hormones, it’s said to boost energy, mental clarity and alertness; speed up metabolism; and help with thyroid functioning.
Labeled as a “wakefulness promoting agent,” Modafinil is a central nervous system stimulant that’s taken once a day to fight daytime sleepiness and improve concentration and alertness. It was approved by the FDA in 1998 (under the name Provigil) to treat narcolepsy, and this was later extended to sleep apnea and shift work sleep disorder treatment. Though its allegedly taken by astronauts and U.S. military pilots, it’s considered a controlled substance here, i.e., you need a prescription and its technically illegal to import (a similar drug, Adrafinil, is not considered a controlled substance, however). In Canada and Germany, it’s not a controlled substance but it is prescription only; in Mexico, the UK and India, it’s available without a prescription.
A 2011 British study concluded that sleep-deprived surgeons should swap out caffeine in favor of Modafinil. I’ve taken generic Modafinil (called Modalert) before, and the effects are subtle — you don’t feel “up” or speedy (it’s not a stimulant), nor vastly sharper. But it did seem to help squash some of the anxiety/fatigue that normally comes along with sitting at a computer and writing for hours at a stretch. My boyfriend also tried it, telling me after a few hours that it had had no effect; by the end of the day, however, he realized that he’d been especially productive and reading for long hours at a stretch. Placebo effect? Maybe. I’d love to hear other people’s experience with Modafinil in the comments. There are also a wealth of personal accounts about Modifinil online (see here and here to start).
Other names: Provigil, Alertec, Modalert, Modavigil, Vigil
* There’s actually a lot of debate over whether stimulants should be included under the nootropics umbrella, although most popular media about smart drugs focuses nearly exclusively on these stimulants.