Are “smart drugs” the future in work and study?

Most of us don’t try anything more than a few cups of coffee to give us a mental boost during the work day. But increasingly there’s a generation who are using more powerful medication to give them an edge, firstly in their studies and then later at work.

In one survey of tens of thousands of Americans, 30% said they had tried so-called “smart drugs”, pills that are purported to boost memory or concentration. But do they work and how will they affect the world of employment?

Which ones work?

There are drugs which can give you a performance edge in some mental tasks. Modafinil, a drug originally developed to treat sleep deprivation, has been shown to improve planning, decision-making, learning and creativity.

There’s also evidence that Ritalin, the drug used for people with ADHD, also boosts mental energy and motivation. “I think it’s very clear that some do work,” says Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist based at Stanford University.

What are the downsides?

“Be careful what you wish for,” goes the saying. Some smart drug users have found they perform as advertised, but that isn’t always a good thing.

“While the drug made me focus, it was on the wrong things – such as playing video games on my smartphone,” says Benjamin Zand for the BBC of his experience with Modafinil. Then it kept him up until the early hours of the morning, not an ideal result for most employees.

Nadira Faber, a research fellow at the University of Oxford, says smart drugs boost the concentration of neurotransmitters, but that isn’t good for everyone. “Performance is highest at an optimal concentration, and both having too low and too high levels can make it worse,” she says.

Are they safe?

Ritalin is an amphetamine, so it can be addictive. It can also cause side effects such as nervousness, anxiety, insomnia, stomach pains, and even hair loss. That’s one thing if you’re treating a condition like ADHD, but is it worth it to meet that deadline?

Modafinil has fewer side effects, but the long-term impact may not be sustainable. “Maybe you’re hyper-focused for four hours, 12 hours, but then you’re below baseline for 24 or 48,” says Huberman.

Are they legal?

If you’d like to take a smart drug for a short term boost, would you be breaking the law? It’s a bit of a grey area. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 restricts the sale of drugs like modafinil or Ritalin, except to people with a prescription.

But that hasn’t stopped many people importing them from pharmacies abroad – and that seems to be legal. Experts warn that drugs sold online in unregulated marketplaces could be full of impurities, however. The question for now is whether the current generation of smart drugs are worth the effort and the risk.