Odds are, the word either conjures up grossly negative images of shady dealings done by athletes and overly-muscular men trying to game the system and cheat their way to the top, or you have the polar opposite reaction and feel these compounds are misunderstood and misrepresented in the media, and, at the right time and place, they serve their purpose.
It seems, as we advance, many of us feel the need to improve upon what nature has given us, while others feel if it were meant to be, we would have been born with it.
The world of academia happens to parallel the athletic world in its own way, with many taking a strong stance on either side of the argument.
What argument might that be?
Whether or not the use of smart drugs, like nootropics, is ethical.
Termed “academic doping” by some (you can guess which side they support), this practice is basically the off-label use of smart drugs (which include prescription medication like Adderall and Ritalin for the sake of their argument) to improve cognitive ability.
Francis Fukuyama may have summarized the argument against the broader issue of performance enhancement best in his book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. In it he says, “The original purpose of medicine is to heal the sick, not turn healthy people into gods,” pointing out that the increased use of such drugs could raise the standard of what is considered “normal” performance, causing a widening of the gap between those who have access to the medications and those who don’t.
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse argues that greater availability of such drugs will lead to an increase in misuse and abuse , and her theory already appears to be coming true as prescription medication is only second to cannabis use amongst students .
On another side of the argument, because there are more than just pro and con but many grey areas of consideration, sits Dr. Ilina Singh, an academic at the London School of Economics and a lecturer in bioethics, specializing in “the psycho-social and ethical implications of new biomedical technologies for children and families” .
She argues that because neuroenhancement is likely to become a common social practice, drugs that meet a set of rigorous parameters to ensure minimum risk and maximum benefit should be made accessible to young people (with their parent’s approval) so that they may improve themselves and their performance.
Still, her argument largely relies on the premise that nootropics will simply “become the norm” and not whether their use is ethical or not, and a lot of it may sound like “they’re going to do it anyway”, but she and her co-author, Kelly J Kelleher, believe that “from an ethical perspective” these drugs are not much different than using caffeine, tutors, brain exercises, or from parents trying to increase their child’s intelligence in the womb by introducing them to classical music.
As opposed to an athlete already at the top of their game trying to get to the next level, nootropics (like piracetam and not prescription medication like Adderall) are more like vitamins being taken to replace a deficiency in certain areas . Adderall and its fellow pharmaceuticals, however, are more like steroids taking performance to an unnatural level, but, other than safety concerns,  what makes one more moral than the other does? How is either “cheating”?
Coffee is used by millions every day to increase wakefulness and alertness in people—how is that different than nootropics? In fact, caffeine itself is often classed as a nootropic.
At what point does effectiveness become “too much” and who is to decide where that line is? And what about those people that actually need to be at the top of their mental game like pilots and surgeons who literally have the lives of others in their hands?
Of course, there is no definitive answer to this question. More competition is not necessarily a bad thing, and actually forces us to be better , and the “academic dopers” of today might just be the doctors and chemists of tomorrow that finally figure out the perfect formula for a healthy and perfectly functioning brain.
I think Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, said it best in a paper that foresaw this debate, by comparing the history of cosmetic surgery—originally seen as a vain and unnatural thing—to the current trajectory of cosmetic neurology, as he likes to call it.
“We worship at the altar of progress, and to the demigod of choice. Both are very strong undercurrents in the culture and the way this is likely to be framed is: ‘…We want people performing at the max, and if that means using these medicines, then great…’ I’m not taking that position, but we have this winner-take-all culture and that is the way it is likely to go…Is this enhancement, or a matter of removing the cloud over our better selves?”