Thursday, February 11, 2010

Thoughts on Nootropics and "Brain Doping"

Margaret Talbot's article in the New Yorker comes on 4-20, but it brings up a topic that's been around for years:Nootropics.

Margaret's article brings up several points, beyond legality and ethicality of use in an academic and work environment.

Nootropics have been around for a while. The idea of being able to enhance performance is not a new thing, and students have been popping pills to keep awake for about as long as they discovered that coffee and cigarettes have their limits.

In the 90s, the Clinton Administration helped the burgeoning nootropic market with loosening FDA regulation for experimental purposes. This created a sometimes shady but quasi-legal market for Piracetam and Vassopressin, DMAE, and a whole slew of other drugs that were meant for treatment of Alzheimers and other disorders.

Because of the quasi-legal nature, and the lack of real FDA regulation, you can get a great many nootropics through the mail--often of questionable quality, and often without any sort of instruction for use. But, now in 2009, you can get a great many prescription strength and much better quality drugs--though, often for entirely different purposes than their intended use.

In the spirit of disclosure, in the 90s, I was certainly on board. Faster. Smarter. More focused. It was a very seductive thing. Who doesn't want to be a little smarter? Piracetam certainly delivered. Vassopressin did as well, and sex right after a charge...well, it certainly didn't hurt. Yes, your nasal passages got a little raw, but gottverdammt...

The thing is, they all had their side effects. Yes, you were a little faster, memory was improved, and cognitive function was expanded with Piracetam--but likewise, there was a down side, beyond the sometimes gastro-intestinal distress, in that the "bullshit tolerance" tends to narrow, if not disappear. I simply didn't have time to waste on anyone who was slower or meandered.

Talbot's article boils down to the use of nootropics as less of a way of enhancing and expanding the mind, but their eventual reliance to perform in an increasingly competitive market. That we are perhaps looking at a whole market that can shackle folks just as much as a reliance on steroids for performance, as opposed to opening up horizons of thought.

The question comes down to, as writers, we consume coffee with wild abandon--I live with that coffee pot and ashtray, and have a hard time even parsing thought without one or the other-- and most of us are hardly above the occasional Redbull or cup of tea, or shoving down pills full of fish oil, or sucking down a smoothie chock full of the latest goo that's supposed to grease the mental wheels, but is there a line where "doping" the brain crosses some ethical line? The military provides drugs for pilots and line troops to help their performance. Employers regularly provide coffee, we can expect breaks for cigarettes even. Can we expect our employers to not just condone the use of nootropics, but actively encourage it, especially in times of increasing competition? As writers, can we ignore that our colleagues are using drugs to aid their focus and cognition, and are we throwing ourselves onto the pyre of experimentation for Dame Market?

Do we need disclosure of their use? For ethics purposes, or is it none of anyone's damn business? I'm curious how folks see the issue, considering that so many are in fields where the use of this class "enhancements" is hardly regulated, but you can see the effects in academics and in the workplace.

Originally posted on :

Mon Apr 20, 2009 at 23:12:40 PM EDT at The Motley Moose


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