While most people start their day with a cup of coffee, Jeremy Cole, an operations manager at an aviation company in Denver, Colo., ingests a little white pill called modafinil. For those with debilitating sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, which can cause individuals to pass out at all hours of the day, the drug’s energizing qualities offer a ray of hope for a normal life. But the thing is, Cole doesn’t suffer from narcolepsy. Instead, he’s part of a growing throng of otherwise healthy individuals popping high-powered pharmaceuticals to add some zing to their grey matter. “It’s not like coffee, it doesn’t make you feel buzzed or amped up,” says Cole, who began to take the drug 10 months ago. “It’s as if a fog has been lifted off your brain.”
By now, many have heard the stories of university students popping Ritalin to help them cram for exams. But in recent months there have been signs the phenomenon has spread to scientists, academics and even office workers. This past spring the journal Nature conducted an informal survey of its readers to gauge how many of them have used so-called smart drugs. The survey found that one in five respondents had turned to pharmaceuticals to enhance their concentration, focus and memory. Then, in July, a popular technology blog in Silicon Valley proclaimed Provigil (the brand name for modafinil) to be the “entrepreneur’s drug of choice.” The blog cited executives at upstart tech companies who rely on it to keep them energized through 20-hour workdays.
Now a report entitled “When the Boss Turns Pusher” in last month’s issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics warns that some employers may soon pressure workers to take brain boosters as a way to improve their performance. The report argues legislation is urgently needed to protect workers’ rights before the practice of healthy people using smart drugs becomes more common. “I’m a strong supporter of individual autonomy and I think people should be able to enhance themselves all they want,” Dr. Jacob Appel, a bioethics lecturer at Brown University in Rhode Island and the report’s author, told Maclean’s. “But my concern is that employers will try to compel individuals to do that.”
It’s hard to know exactly how many healthy adults are doping their brains. Anecdotal evidence on the Internet suggests an underground enhancement culture is taking shape not unlike what occurred in the early days of steroid use in bodybuilding. In online forums devoted to cognition enhancement, participants rhyme off their pharmaceutical regimens the same way other people swap cocktail recipes. Except in this case, the ingredients are some of the most powerful compounds on the market, approved to treat not just narcolepsy and attention deficit disorder, but also Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and depression.