Entrepreneurship is all about finding the edge – how to be that bit more creative, productive, confident or see things that bit more clearly. So, it was only a matter of time before entrepreneurs started looking to brain enhancing drugs – often known as nootropics – to help them reach their ultimate potential.
Think 'brain enhancing drugs' and you're likely to conjure up thoughts of the 2011 film Limitless, where Bradley Cooper takes a miracle pill to access every neuron in his brain. The drug makes him super smart, capable of incredible feats of mathematics, intuition and reasoning, but is also hugely addictive, with life-threatening side effects for anyone who stops taking it.
Thankfully, the reality isn't so extreme. None of the brain enhancing drugs on the market today will turn you into Superman, or leave you fighting for your life. But with increasing demand amongst students, entrepreneurs, investment bankers and other professionals searching for that extra edge, there are plenty of products that promise to do just that.
What are they?
Many of the original so-called 'smart drugs' were intended to treat ADHD or narcolepsy, before being discovered as a way of improving cognitive function amongst those who don't suffer from these conditions.
One of the first was Adderall, which became popular a few years ago amongst students, helping them to perform in exams. It's an amphetamine that is reported to increase focus and concentration, although it can also cause side effects including insomnia, heart palpitations and loss of appetite.
Another is Ritalin (methylphenidate), a central nervous system stimulant that increases the concentration of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. That means it can boost memory performance, but side effects such as anxiety and heart palpitations can be a problem. Both Adderall and Ritalin are also highly addictive, requiring increasingly high doses to achieve the same effect.
More recently, a drug called Modafinil has come into fashion, named 'the entrepreneur's drug of choice' by Techcrunch. Developed to treat sleep disorders, Modafinil is a stimulant like Adderall and Ritalin, except it's believed to work by decreasing the release of a chemical that slows the brain down. While it can still cause some side-effects, studies have shown it's less addictive than other smart drugs and is overall pretty safe to use, at least in the short-term.
The popularity of these so-called 'off-prescription drugs' has inspired a number of intrepid start-ups, dedicated to finding the optimal combination of substances for cognitive performance, but without the side effects. Key players include TruBrain, Nootrobrain, Nootro and ThoughtFoods, each with their own unique products promising to enhance mental concentration, memory, verbal fluency and improve stress response.
These businesses say that their supplements – sold in a variety of drinks, powders and capsules – are truly nootropic, which means they enhance memory and learning, while also protecting the brain from physical or chemical injury, with few side effects and low toxicity. They usually contain a combination of ingredients, often based around a family of cognitive enhancing substances called racetams, which are used medically to treat dementia, depression and anxiety. These are bolstered by amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and sometimes caffeine, to give the desired effect.
But do they really work?
While users of these smart drugs may report enhanced cognitive abilities, hard proof is thin on the ground for most of the drugs and supplements available. Studies have even found that they can impair brain power at the wrong dosage levels, while many experts believe any cognitive enhancements could simply be down to the 'placebo effect'.
The drug that has been most widely proven is Modafinil, with researchers showing it does increase executive function, including a boost in attention and learning. A recent study even showed that it can improve chess ability. Researchers from Harvard and Oxford also reported that it has "vanishingly few side effects" when used in a controlled environment, leading many to call it 'the world's first safe smart drug'.
The use of drugs like Modafinil for recreational (or professional) use is an ethical grey area and they aren't freely available for these purposes. That means getting hold of them isn't easy without a prescription and if buying online, you can never be quite sure what you're getting.
Many of the more readily available nootropics could be worth a try though, to see if they work for you – but proceed with caution. And remember, there's always coffee, exercise and a good night's sleep – all of which can do wonders for your brain, with no pill popping required!