MH charts the highs and lows of mixing work with cognitive-enhancement drugs
To call the thumps to my chest ‘palpitations’ wouldn’t be getting to the heart of the matter. My ribcage is moving under the pressure of the beat. Sweat clams up my palms as I ruminate over what I’ve done. Which is to say, taken a whacking great dose of amphetamines at work. At 11am. At my desk. In front of my boss.
Neither socking it to the man or losing my head are my aim, however. Bubbling away in my gut is a so-called ‘smart’ drug called dexamfetamine. While similar in composition to the speed snorted up by wired kids on street corners, this one is going to make me smarter, more focused, better at my job. At least, that’s the theory. Right now it feels like I’ve gone too hard at a club night on a wonky Class A.
Smart drugs have filled many a tabloid column inch in recent years. These substances – memory enhancers, cognitive boosters – have been officially prescribed to people as varied as Alzheimer’s and narcolepsy sufferers to frontline marines in Afghanistan. Now they are being abused. The culprits, however, do not fit the profile of the stereotypical, recreational druggist. These are hard-working, high achievers. They are students, lecturers, City money brokers and international lawyers. They’re not losers, they are winners.
You will have heard of the big names. Modafinil, Ritalin and Adderall are prescription-only medications that are easily purchased (albeit not entirely legally) online. But these have been joined by a new wave of chemistry-set unknowns named nootropics: novel compositions, some synthesised by scientists, others by an enterprising black market. Not all are subject to tests or trials, yet ironically they are not restricted by the law. Smart pills are becoming big business.
Are you intrigued? Even just a little curious? I certainly am. Who doesn’t want to think harder, perform better, earn higher or peak for longer? It’s more a question of whether or not you believe this can be achieved – safely – with apill. This is where the waters get muddied. The likes of Modafinil have established efficacy; it has been developed, tested and ratified. But it is illegal to sell without prescription in the UK. Importing for personal use is fine, but still risky. On the other hand, very little is known about the toxicity or side effects of the catalogue of nootropics hitting the market. Some lab tests have come under fire from neuroscientists; academic conflicts abound. Yet they are legitimately sold.
For me, transcending the limits of pure effort, resulting in some sort of super version of yourself, is a seductive concept. But it also presents a paradoxical quandary: do you go about it illegally via relatively safe prescription drugs, or legally via potentially toxic ones? My personal experiment is simple: try them all.
Off The Rails
King’s Cross station. I’m meeting a journalist who specialises in narcotics, professionally and recreationally. He has brought with him a wealth of knowledge about the drugs market and a small wrap containing three dexamfetamine tablets – his favourite. “Be careful, dexys are quite strong,” he warns me smilingly.
Dexamfetamines are prescribed to people with narcolepsy. They can also help level out those who can’t focus, and stimulate regular people lacking sleep. The list of possible side effects ranges from ‘palpitations’ to ‘instant death’. My contact won’t take any money for them, partly out of kindness, partly out of self-preservation: to sell me these drugs could land him in jail.
Wary of what I might be doing to myself I seek out a qualified opinion. Professor Barbara Sahakian, a Cambridge University neuroscientist, is a leading voice on the mind. She is on record as saying there are better ways to boost your brainpower than dropping smart drugs, but is in the know when it comes to Modafinil et al.
“These drugs tend to act on two chemicals in the brain. One is dopamine and the other is noradrenaline,” she says. “The former is important for motivation but is also crucial for optimum brain function via your working memory. This is effectively your brain’s core. Whenever you do something complicated, such as planning or problem solving, your working memory puts in all the effort.” So far so smart, but there’s far more to this than nailing puzzles: “Working memory also governs what we call crystal intelligence – in other words, your IQ – as well as ‘fluid intelligence’, which is your level of creativity.”
I had considered smart drugs to be on a par with a strong cup of coffee; something to help when deadlines loom. But higher intelligence? Enhanced powers of creativity? This is what I want. I decide to proceed and drop my dexy, pledging to take notes as I go in the spirit of analysis. Come at me, brain smarts.
10:12am The rush is surprisingly potent. Are my eyes swollen? Disorientation. I can feel something in my eyes; I’m blinking a lot. Slight panic, heart rate through the roof. I think my colleagues can tell.
11:05am Paranoia now. I can’t meet anyone’s glance. This is horrible.
11:49am My balls have shrivelled and retreated inside my body. Tingly. Normal?
12:48pm Level. So level. I don’t feel alert but every moment seems to pass through my consciousness at a slower rate than is normal. My pen hand whizzes through writing on the page in front of me. I feel irritable even having to leave the page just to write this note. Must get back to it.
1.23pm Noticeable differences: I pluck synonyms from my mind promptly; my writing is hilarious; overconfidence; the pleasure from tweaking sentences is overwhelming; genuine joy in my work.
2:13pm I’ve just finished writing consistently, without pause or distraction, for almost two hours. No Twitter breaks, no inane chats with colleagues. Disposition: calm, on top of things, despite the day’s workload. Mood: happy.
4.47pm A bit twitchy. Feeling like I can’t let anything go. Researching online almost obsessively. Beginning to feel absent-minded in my focus, which is hard to fathom.
2.07am Awake! Random memories keep popping up, things I’ve not thought of in years. A delicious milkshake at Disneyland in 1994, a random 3am beach trip at uni with a girl I’d just met plays out in my mind, frame by frame. My head is uncomfortable. Not painful, just uncomfortable. Must sleep.
On the down low
I didn’t sleep. If yesterday was a taste of the highs, today I am feasting on the lows. Enhanced performance comes with its own price, and not just for arrogant cyclists. I call my contact. “It’s like having a credit card for your brain power,” he tells me after I mumble out my distaste for the comedown. “Imagine you usually have a finite amount of concentration to draw from. With these drugs, you’re given a limitless platinum card. So you spend away. But it will catch up with you in the end. You’re feeling bad now because your concentration levels are in the red.”
In the evening, grey-faced and sapped of strength, I open a bottle of red and run a bath in a bid to set up a better night’s sleep. I muse on what I’ve experienced and what I’ve been told. The notion of enhanced creativity is foremost in my mind. I’m a magazine journalist; creativity pays my rent. The idea that I could pop a pill and become Ernest Hemingway has big implications for my work (not to mention the size of my flat). But right now, meddling with the brain feels more like tampering with the soul. I’m reminded of the filmLimitless in which a wonder pill allows Bradley Cooper’s character to access the recesses of his mind for moments of superhuman clarity, a process portrayed by hyper-saturated shots of Cooper looking hyper-handsome. The movies, eh?
Professor Sahakian argues that the benefits derived from smart drugs can also come from exercise. But not all academics prefer nature to narcs when it comes to augmenting your mind. Swedish expat Dr Anders Sandberg researches the ethics of human enhancement at Oxford University. He is also an infrequent user of Modafinil. Traditionally prescribed for sleep disorders, Sandberg believes it has benefits beyond keeping shift workers alert – if you can get hold of it safely.
“The problem with Modafinil is that it’s illegal to sell to people in the UK without prescription,” says Sandberg. “Acquiring the drug takes you down the less-salubrious back alleys of dotcom pharmaceuticals, which means you can’t always guarantee what you’re getting isn’t contaminated. But for many it’s worth the risks. [Modafinil] seems to have an interesting effect on the frontal lobe,” he continues. “It helps with problem solving and mental control, allowing your higher senses to get your brain to do what it’s supposed to.”
This sounds infinitely more attractive than the raw power of dexamfetamine. I begin by scouring the web. Modafinil i’s readily available and clearly popular, especially among students it would seem. Some say it’s like a cup of tea compared to dexy’s triple-shot espresso effect, but considering the latter is blowing my mind, that brew sounds nice.
Three days on dexys, and three without sleep, the consequences of which are manifesting more in my personal life than professional. Friends at work look at me with genuine concern and friends outside work think I’m mad. A cursory medical check-up turns up the results you’d expect: I’m run down (not much vitamin C in my urine); sleep loss is hammering my immune system; sex is completely off my mind. I’m in a constant dreamlike state.
From this point, I decide, I’m going to pace myself. Trawling one of the many forums on smart drugs and nootropics, I’m amazed at the strength of what is clearly becoming a defined subculture. People swap dosage ideas, ‘stacks’ (combinations of drugs) and anecdotes. There’s a degree of chest-beating too; in the same way men compare one-rep max stats on workout forums, people here are showing off what they can achieve on these drugs. They’re pumping up their minds and tensing for everyone to see.
A company keeps cropping up in discussions. TruBrain is US-based and set up by neuroscientists. It works as a delivery service, much like Graze the snack-box company here in the UK, except instead of nuts and seed, you get amino acids and Piracetam – a potent nootropic that has more scientific backing than most. Not 10 minutes after I place an international order, my previously bought Modafinil arrives. It’s like Christmas at the Einstein’s.
Fear & Low Zing
4.15pm I conduct mini studies to assess mental performance while under the influence. In a complicated memory test I score 78%, an increase of 30% on my score before I first dropped. Result!
5:07pm I definitely prefer Modafinil. It’s a more subtle brain boost with no palpable come up. Focus levels: high. Mood: balanced. Energy: stimulated, but in the same way you are from a strong coffee after no sleep. Must remember to sleep tonight.
3:18am Awake. Feel very alone. I know my frame of mind is due to dexamfetamine withdrawal – my serotonin and dopamine levels are low – but that knowledge isn’t enough to abate the effects. MUST SLEEP.
5:31am Have just played guitar for over an hour. Noticeable improvement in finger picking speed and accuracy when forming chords. Feels like being in a state of flow, reminiscent of the improvement when playing pool or bowling after a couple of beers. Played About Today by The National. Cried for 10 minutes afterward.
With breakfast becoming a routine of coffee-with-smart-pill, my behaviour is beginning to cause some alarm. I may be gaining extra smarts, but to colleagues it appears that I’m doing so at the expense of wellbeing. The boss advises caution and requests I seek medical supervision, but every doctor I try simply tells me to cease and desist. I don’t want to. To my mind, they’re worth it. I feel on top of my work. I finish every task I start. Instead of the old piles of half-finished items on my to-do list, my desk is clear.
But am I deluded? As yet, there have been few serious problems associated with mass-produced smart drugs. Even so, reports point to cardiac issues related to overuse; anecdotes tell of psychological problems when you stop munching your stash. Both researchers and users liken the effects to your americano habit: use too little and you won’t notice it; use too much and you’ll fry your brain.
This plays on my mind as I finger the foil packets in my TruBrain delivery box. I have the morning’s Modafinil in my system. Dexamfetamine still lingers. On the face of it, I should be OK with these new drugs: they’re mainly amino acids, some fish oil, and Piracetim, which has been deemed safe time and time again. But I can’t ignore the headaches; the stomach pains too. Psychologically, I feel like I’m on a hamster wheel of productivity and focus. A mantra repeats in my head: got to stay on it, getting off would mean disaster. What am I doing to myself?
The answer to that question depends on where you are. The UK sits somewhere in the middle of the moral debate around smart drugs. In Sweden, it’s impossible to get hold of these things without a serious medical condition. In the US, children with ADHD are given small doses of crystal meth to level them out (look it up) and anyone with sleeping issues can get Adderal and Modafinil. On the continent, a few quid will buy you Adrafinil over the chemist counter. Here, it’s a little greyer.
Do the drugs work?
Prescriptions for drugs like Ritalin have increased by about 50% in recent years. Does this indicate that more people are developing attention disorders? Unlikely. In fact, some of it can be attributed to a con trick celebrated on many online forums; faking ADHD with eyes on the prize of a prescription. It’s simple, they say: look up symptoms of the disorder, go private (more likely to dish out drugs), act them out and go through the motions. All you need do is switch off your conscience.
Regular self-tests show that my memory and IQ are steadily increasing. But the drugs are having other, less positive mental effects. According to an assessment under the guidelines of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, I’m showing signs of depression, mania, social anxiety, paranoia and ‘relationship issues’. There’s no doubt the quality of my work has increased and I’ve pushed myself enthusiastically. But to call it burning the candle at both ends would be an understatement. My approach has been to throw the whole thing in the microwave.
After 10 days of my drug-fuelled career, these lingering side effects have begun to outweigh the benefits. I’m deep in concentration debt; headaches plague my day; my insomnia is worse and now I can’t get myself out of bed in the morning. My mood is low due to withdrawal symptoms and I cannot focus. That I have conducted myself badly around the people closest to me is becoming apparent now, too.
Would I recommend these drugs to you? Probably not. But I would be willing to use Modafinil again, if only as a once-in-a-while emergency option. When an IQ jump or concentration boost means a potential promotion, it has its benefits. But be careful when you sign that pact with the devil. For a short while I was more intelligent in virtually every sense bar emotionally. In hindsight, that doesn’t seem like a very smart trade-off.