We humans are innately competitive. We see it at the workplace among co-workers, we see it at home among siblings and relatives, and more notably, we see it at school among students.

Despite all the stress and anxiety it generates, competitiveness is arguably a positive thing as it is a key driving force for advancement and innovation. However, when people become too focused or even obsessed with success, they may start looking for tricks and shortcuts to get them ahead of the competition.

One of the latest trends that has been growing among students of all ages is the use of the so-called “smart drugs” as a quick fix to improve mental performance. In this article we are going to take a closer look at these drugs, their goods and bads.

What are smart drugs?

The term “smart drug” is just a showy label used to refer to a diverse group of psychoactive pharmaceutical drugs that are used to enhance certain cognitive functions, hence they are also called cognitive enhancers. Another more commercial term they are known by is nootropics, which include many cognition-enhancing dietary supplements and herbs in addition to synthetic drugs.

Originally, these drugs were developed to treat specific mental disorders, such as ADHD, dementia, excessive daytime sleepiness, etc. But then healthy people who don’t necessarily need these drugs started using them off-label, and noticed that they do give a boost to some mental functions like focus, vigilance, memory, motivation, etc.

What are the effects of smart drugs?

Smart drugs on the whole fall under one or more of these three categories of medications: stimulants, anxiolytics, or sedatives. Each drug has its own effects and benefits, but the general primary purpose of these drugs is to help support mental well-being and improve cognitive functions.

Unlike what the name suggests, smart drugs don’t actually make the user any smarter, well at least not in their own right. They may however help some students stay focused, motivated and relaxed while they study, which is the only way to get smarter!

Let us look at a few examples of commonly used smart drugs and their uses.

  • Adderall: This prescription-only medication is mainly used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Many people use this drug off-label to improve cognitive functions, performance and wakefulness.
  • Modafinil: Another prescription-only drug that is prescribed for patients suffering from daytime sleepiness as a result of different sleep disorders. Modafinil’s main effects are increased wakefulness and mental energy.
  • Piracetam: An unapproved drug that gives a mild boost to cognitive functions and may help improve mental decline related to age. Piracetam is believed to improve memory and combat depression, but the supporting evidence is weak.
  • Phenibut: An anxiolytic and sedative drug that is used to treat anxiety, induce relaxation and promote restful sleep. Phenibut is not approved by the FDA, but it is widely sold as an over-the-counter nootropic supplement. It was recently banned in Australia due to risks of misuse and addiction.

It is worth noting that while most cognitive enhancer drugs have proven therapeutic effects against certain health conditions, they may not be effective or helpful for healthy people. The efficacy of these medications has only been clinically evaluated in patients suffering from one or more mental disorders, not in healthy individuals.

What are the risks?

With the desired effects of each drug comes a series of undesired side effects. Smart drugs have varying side effects, but some of the common adverse effects include headache, nausea, anxiety, agitation, dizziness, insomnia, and others.

More serious side effects can develop in cases of abuse, such as consuming a much higher dose than is standard, and mixing different drugs together or with alcohol. Overdosing and drug interaction can be dangerous, and in some cases may even lead to death.

Psychoactive medications may cause dependence or addiction, and they may not be safe for everyone. Taking any drug without the supervision of a physician is not advised.

How easy is it to obtain these drugs?

The accessibility of smart drugs depends on their legal status, which varies from one country to another and even from one state to another. In this regard, we can group smart drugs into the following two categories:

  • Prescription Drugs: These are medications that are approved for medical use and require a doctor’s prescription to be purchased. Since most smart drug users are recreational users who don’t have a prescription, they often order the drugs from online pharmacies, many of which operate illegally.
  • Unapproved Drugs: These are more commonly referred to as nootropic drugs and they are not approved for medical use, but still legal to buy over the counter. Consumers mostly source nootropics from online vendors inside and outside the United States.

It is quite easy and convenient for anyone with a credit card to order any kind of drug from the Internet. On the down side, most online drugstores are unlicensed and unregulated, and selling mislabeled or downright fake products is rather common on the web.

Is using smart drugs cheating?

Well, this isn’t a clear-cut form of cheating, and many arguments can be made for and against the use of smart drugs in academic environments.

There is an interesting debate hosted by Intelligence Squared U.S. that discusses whether college students should be allowed to take smart drugs or not.

But can you really blame students for wanting shortcuts and quick fixes when they find themselves in a fast-paced and very competitive world with so much pressure on them to be “successful”? Is the use of smart drugs the cause of a problem or the result of a more complicated problem?