ONONENYI: The future of smart drugs

The season for final exams and papers is here. Cafes in New Haven observe a sharp increase in caffeine sales; nightclubs dread a few weeks of spotty dance floors. For many students, however, coffee no longer promises long hours of alertness and concentration. As stress begins to shadow the Yale campus, many students seeking a competitive edge on their finals will either consume or consider consuming some form of smart drugs. Call them Adderall, modafinil or adrafinil — these nootropics are now as easy to obtain as a copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

I will not bore you with specific pharmacological details, but these drugs come in many forms and use different mechanisms of action. They are meant for people with serious cognitive problems, but if you invent a prescription-worthy story for your physician or Google some online drugstore, you soon will have some cerebral candies to last a few months.

As scary as this might seem, many college students confess openly to using these nootropics without a prescription. According to a 2006 Pharmacotherapy study, over 5 percent of college students reported using stimulants illicitly to help them concentrate and study. This could easily translate to over 300 Yalies out of about 5000 who already have or will unlawfully consume nootropics by the end of the academic year.

I do not intend to disapprove or advocate the use of nootropics, but rather share my thoughts with the rookies and seasoned pill-poppers that will compose this year’s statistic.

Millions of dollars are spent to incite public awareness about the addictive potential and the detrimental effects of using controlled substances. One does not know the real content of drugs purchased online or on the black market. Fortunately, however, we get our daily anti-drug warnings from TV commercials, so there is no need to mention the devastating consequences of using methamphetamine, cocaine and other similarly abused chemicals.

Certainly, the legal use of nootropics is justifiable. Eugeroics, such as modafinil and adrafinil, are used to treat sleeping disorders and narcolepsy. Listed in Schedule IV of the Controlled Substances Act, they are known to have low abuse and dependence potential. The amphetamine class of drugs, on the other hand, which includes Adderall and Dexedrine, can be addictive. While these drugs benefit those who need them for medical reasons, they can cause adverse effects.

With time, we will know their long-term effects; currently, however, one cannot speculate on the future of nootropics. Who knows? Maybe in a few decades we will be able to purchase nootropics over the counter, or even walk into Starbucks and ask for a shot of modafinil with our coffee. It might sound crazy now, but remember that the recreational use of marijuana was recently voted legal in Washington and Colorado. And if alcohol was once as prohibited as cannabis, then one can certainly imagine that society will one day accept over-the-counter nootropics.

The off-label use of smart drugs is still a taboo in the U.S., but there will be tough moral and political fights on this topic in the near future. But for now, if you are still contemplating spending a few bucks on them, remember that the old-school “study harder” method always works, too. And if you’re already taking a cognitive booster, and especially doing so unlawfully, do so responsibly. Seek advice from legitimate health sources and legal users in order to minimize possible adverse effects and overdose.

More importantly, I urge you to be less private about your use. As daring as it might seem, it would help keep the topic on the table and allow for more accurate statistics needed for pharmacological studies. We all know that curiosity can kill the cat if measures are not taken to ensure her safety. So, call yourself a risk-taker or a curious person, but the statistics you make today will determine the future policy and use of smart drugs. Good luck on your finals.


Chimezie Ononenyi is a research assistant at the Yale School of Medicine.