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Is Improving Cognitive Skills With Nootropics Cheating?

What's right and wrong when using nootropics isn't always practical.

Annie Lennon
Source: Annie Lennon

Athletes get penalized for using performance-enhancing drugs. But what about using nootropics while working towards exams—or when working in general? Is it ethical, and even healthy, to use them to improve cognitive skills?

What are Nootropics?

Nootropics are compounds and supplements that improve cognitive abilities. They get their name from Ancient Greek words: ‘νόος’ (pronounced ‘nóos’) and ‘τροπή’ (pronounced ‘tropḗ’), and come in three forms. These are: stimulants, also known as 'smart drugs' (such as Ritalin and Adderall), synthetic compounds (like Noopept and racetams like piracetam), and natural compounds (such as caffeine, and herbal ginseng).

While many are thought to be safe for general use, like caffeine and ginseng, others, such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall (a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine) are prescription drugs used to treat sleep disorders and ADHD.

Due to limited research on most nootropics, little is known on exactly what they do in the brain. While some are known to improve skills like attention, memory, and general processing, their exact results vary from person to person, depending on genetics, neurochemistry, general cognitive performance, and more.

Despite this, nootropics are popular for enhancing brain function. Research has shown that anywhere between 8% and 35% of college students admit to taking 'study drugs' to enhance their academic performance. Meanwhile, a study from showed that almost a third of parents think that stimulants Ritalin and Adderall boost their children's academic performance, even if they don't have ADHD.

But is it ethical for people to use nootropics to improve their cognitive skills?

Are We Cheating Biology by Using Nootropics?

Source: paulbr75/Pixabay

One of the leading arguments against widespread nootropic use is that they alter biology and give an unfair advantage to some over others. An example of this would be students using a drug that enhances their focus, attention, and memory from their baseline. These improvements could then lead them to perform better on tests than others who did not take the same drugs.

While this may happen, others say that using this example as evidence against the use of nootropics ignores underlying factors that already have a strong influence on cognitive performance. Although cognitive skills do play a role in academic performance, how they arise, i.e., by environmental and genetic factors, is also important to consider.

Studies conducted on animals show that iron deficiency while in the womb and early on in life disrupts myelination—the process of fat lining neural fibers to increase transmission between neurons. This then leads to iron deficiency anemia (IDA) in children, something that researchers speculate negatively affects cognitive processing. Thus, how much iron both mothers and infants have in their diets may influence cognitive processing.

But it doesn't stop with iron. The researchers behind Get Georgia Reading found that 'language nutrition' may also play a role in cognitive development. While babies from lower-income families reportedly tend to hear just 600 words per hour during their crucial developmental years, those from higher-income families tend to hear around 2,000 words per hour.

This precedes dramatic differences in vocabulary. By the time children reach 3 years old, according to Get Georgia Reading, those from high-income families have more than double the vocabulary of those from low-income families, on average. Those from lower-income groups also tend to fare worse on reading ability.

Until third grade in the U.S. (8-9 years old), a lot of classroom activity is focused on learning to read. From fourth grade (9-10 years old), however, students use reading to learn. Children with lower reading abilities thus tend to fall behind.

Regarding genetic factors, a study from 2003 suggested that among children from impoverished families, 60% of variance in IQ is likely accounted for by their shared environment. The study also noted that the genetic contribution to IQ differences among those children may be close to zero. Meanwhile, the opposite was found for children from more affluent families.

Given that poverty-related adversity and stress early on life may hinder brain development and cognitive ability, it could be said that stress from poorer backgrounds might prevent people from reaching their intellectual potential, as encoded by their genes.

Thus, as the playing field for academic performance is already uneven, some argue that it is logically inconsistent to say that the use of nootropics is unfair. After all, many seem happy to look the other way when it comes to benefits like one-to-one tutoring that are usually only afforded to the wealthier.

If anything, it is arguably more ethical to provide nootropics to lower-performing individuals to make up for their deficits. This comes especially as some studies have found that low performers may be the only ones to truly benefit from the drugs. One study, for example, suggests that although Adderall may improve cognitive abilities like word recall and abstract reasoning in low performers, it may impair those already performing highly.

Could Widespread Nootropic Use Cause Peer Pressure?

Andre Hunter/ Unsplash
Source: Andre Hunter/ Unsplash

The potential for peer pressure is another ethical hurdle when looking at general nootropic use. The argument goes that should nootropics really improve cognitive skills; many may feel pressured to use them just to keep up.

Whether or not this really is a problem though remains to be seen. A good example to the contrary can be found when looking at a naturally occurring nootropic, caffeine. Known to reduce fatigue and promote alertness, it is unlikely that the nootropic is necessary for academic success or that people feel coerced into consuming it.

Others say, however, that indirect coercion may exist—especially with 'smart drugs'. Students at colleges with more competitive criteria, for example, were found to use Ritalin at over two times the rate compared to those in less competitive colleges.

A survey of 4,580 college students indicates that 65% use nootropics to concentrate better and 60% use them to study better. Curiously, 31% of students also reportedly use them to experience a 'high', and 10% to lose weight.

Ethical Lines are Blurred Between Process-Oriented and Goal-Oriented Human Activity

Source: enki0908/Pixabay

Another way to tackle this ethical dilemma is by considering different types of human activity. One is process-oriented. This is about how something happens, i.e., an athlete should run a race and win by being the fastest runner, rather than just being the 'fastest'—something they could do by driving a monster truck across the finish line—or by taking performance-enhancing drugs. Likewise, in the case of students, it could mean acing their exams thanks to their own efforts instead of paying a more studious look-alike to take their place—or taking cognitive-enhancing drugs.

Goal-oriented human activity, on the other hand, focuses more on the output than the process. A good example of this is The Beatles using the now-scheduled drug LSD to write legendary songs like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "She Said, She Said." In the case of a student taking an exam, it would mean commending them for fantastic grades, regardless of whether they actually learned anything or hired a look-alike for the exam room.

But what happens in cases that have blurred lines—that are neither purely goal-oriented nor process-oriented? What happens if, for a student, the purpose of attending school is not necessarily to learn, but to pass exams, although learning is a part of passing?

This is when it gets a bit fuzzy, and where a libertarian extreme—or its polar opposite—may become relevant.

In this case, perhaps it makes sense to either make nootropics available—or banned—to all. Either way, equal access (or lack thereof) is guaranteed.

Both scenarios, though, have drawbacks.

What Happens if We Make All Nootropics Legal for Everybody?

 Nghia Le/Unsplash
Source: Nghia Le/Unsplash

As for making all nootropics available for everybody, what about danger? In the world of sport, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) uses one principle criterion for drug prohibition: whether it poses an actual or potential threat to the athlete's health. A good example of this is the use of anabolic steroids. Although they may work wonders in the short term, chronic use can lead to hepatic disease and fatal cardiovascular problems.

The rule does mean, though, that safer drugs are let off the hook. Caffeine, for example, although known to increase performance in a range of sports, from swimming to cycling and running, is permitted.

Unfortunately, though, restricting nootropics based on whether or not they are harmful is not that simple. Most nootropics are extremely understudied, meaning we are not really sure which are harmless to whom and in which circumstances.

Ritalin is a good example of this. Although it may enhance certain cognitive functions in adults, research suggests that the juvenile brain is hypersensitive to it. This means that a low, clinically relevant dose of the drug may lead to excess dopamine and norepinephrine in the juvenile brain and impair executive functioning and working memory.

Beyond this, it seems that nootropics tend to benefit different people in different ways. The effects of Modafinil, for example, are thought to be dependent on which SNP (Single Nucleotide Polymorphism) rs4680 you have. It's linked to the production of an enzyme that metabolizes dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, and while those with the GG variation reportedly tend to respond well to Modafinil, those with AG have a medium response. Meanwhile, people with the AA version experience relatively little while on the drug.

What if We Ban All Nootropics?

MIH83/ Pixabay
Source: MIH83/ Pixabay

So what about banning all nootropics?

At Duke University, the use of prescription drugs without a prescription is banned. This includes nootropics like Adderall, Ritalin, and Modafinil. And it may make sense: After all, these drugs can cause negative side effects like nervousness, dizziness, and trouble sleeping. Because of this, even self-improvement guru Tim Ferriss recommends against them in favor of more natural alternatives.

Meanwhile, natural nootropics like caffeine, or other nootropics thought to have cognitive-enhancing effects, like cocoa powder, L-Theanine (found in tea), and turmeric, are still allowed in the university.

Although perhaps sensible on paper, enforcing this kind of rule may be hard. Even if students were tested before sitting an exam, who is to say that they wouldn't have used these stimulants throughout the semester to study, or in any training process? Would it then be necessary to make students take drug tests several times per semester? The practicality of enforcement is thus a big issue.

"It's almost impossible to draw the line that defines what is and isn't cheating... How would you enforce it? Is a student using neurofeedback cheating? Are nootropics cheating? Coffee? Or is it only cheating if they use prescription drugs?" says Nita Farahany, a bioethicist at Duke University.

With our increasing thirst for superhuman performance, it's unlikely that nootropics will disappear anytime soon, even if they're taken under the radar. While some see them as reckless, self-serving tools that defy biology, others see them as an opportunity to optimize our neural capacity and access new frontiers. Although much research is lacking, many are now studying the substances to ensure the latter. After all, if taken correctly, they may just deepen the human experience—both in sentience, and in what we're able to bring into reality.


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