From nootropics to no sleep

Picture to test chemicals
By Alex Burden, Senior Digital Editor

22 June 2016

Cognitive-enhancing drugs have hit the headlines as the new way to tackle work and study with an unstoppable zest. But what are they, and what do they do?

Nootropics are the collection of chemicals known as cognitive-enhancing drugs or supplements that can help improve memory, creativity and the ability to concentrate. Ginseng (pictured below) and B12 are in fact classed a nootropic because of their effects on the body. 

Nootropics differ from other ‘smart drugs’ however, as they must not have significant side-effects or be addictive, and must have some form of positive effects for the brain and body.

What nootropics can include, however, is prescription-only drugs, and some man-made substances that are not approved for human consumption. Consuming vitamins, green tea and natural supplements on a regular basis will definitely not do extraordinary damage, but there is debate over whether taking prescription drugs is just as dangerous as consuming non-nootropic smart drugs.

Increasingly, addictive prescription drugs are being lumped in with nootropics, despite the potential for ill-health. One popular drug is Modafinil, which is normally prescribed for treatment of narcolepsy to enable suffers to stay awake and alert for longer periods of time. 

The drug is now available online at minimal cost. With side effects such as fever, rash, severe blistering, vomiting, numbness, bleeding, and muscle weakness, the long-term impact on a ‘healthy’ individual taking the drug is an unknown quantity.

Purchasing drugs from the 'silk road' or dark web is a risky business in itself: there are no guarantees that you are receiving the drug you ordered, or whether these have been adulterated in some way.

Science news website EurekAlert! reported that almost one-fifth of Ivy League College students described use of prescription stimulants to enhance their studying sessions: 69 per cent used them to write an essay, 66 per cent to study, and 27 per cent to sit an exam.

Some UK university students have asked that their peers are drug-tested before an exam, in what would be the first case of checking for ‘exam doping’. We’re used to hearing about ‘doping’ in sports to improve performance, but not about drugs that enable learning and retention of information.

Usage of the drug is not confined to study or exam time, however. An increasing number of workers are taking the drugs to deliver and maintain high-performance in the office, as well as enhanced focus abilities.

The FT reported in 2015 that non-nootropic ‘smart drugs’ are becoming popular with lawyers, bankers and professionals. Methylphenidate drugs such as Ritalin or Adderall are enjoying a ‘boom’ among people under pressure – the ADHD drug also helps to focus the mind and maintain longer working periods without the need for sleep.

Central nervous system stimulants such as these will modify impulse control and hyperactivity to instil a sense of ‘calm’: the drug literature states that the drug may be habit-forming, and should not be shared with someone with a history of drug abuse. 

But what about the kind of people who are taking the drug for academic or employment purposes? Are these drug abusers? For the most part, they are simply students or employees who feel they need that extra ‘edge’ to compete. That doesn’t mean they will be immune to habit-forming chemicals, however.

The human body doesn’t last for long without regular sleep patterns; sleep being the brain’s way of shedding toxins and dead cells. Imagine a car without ever getting an MOT! It’s understandable to be tempted by a magic pill that takes away anxiety, the need for sleep and any brain ‘fogginess’ in a world that requires consistent, strong performance, but workforces and individuals should be aware of the potential impact on employee and manager health.

We could be non-sleeping into a wide-scale problem.

If you are affected by the issues raised in this article, you can speak with your GP about any concerns, or anonymously at, Drugsline (0808 1 606 606) or Action on Addiction (0300 330 0659), for example.


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