Should You Take "Smart Drugs" to Boost Brain Functions?

The increased use of smart drugs to boost brain performance is raising many ethical and practical questions.

Should You Take "Smart Drugs" to Boost Brain Functions?

The 2016 Olympics were generally a positive event, free of major controversies or disasters (#Lochtegate aside). The bigger scandals happened beforehand, with the worst being the exposure of Russia’s state-run athlete doping operation. 118 Russians ended up being banned from participating in the Olympics, many of them the best in their sports. The international community took a stand that it doesn’t want athletes to use certain chemicals that enhance performance. 


As many regular non-Olympian people turn to chemicals to help their everyday performance, especially those that help brain functions, questions about such “smart drugs” (also known as nootropics) abound.

We are talking about current drugs like Ritalin, Adderall and Modafinil, but also about drugs that have not yet been created. Surely, they will be even stronger and more precise in their effects. 

What's more, while additional studies need to be done, some recent research suggests Modafinil, in particular, is pretty safe to use. It was shown to boost a number of mental skills, including attention, creativity and memory without side effects or potential for addiction. 

Are they fair?

Is it fair that someone can take a drug and suddenly be able to concentrate and remember better and, ultimately, do a superior job compared to a person who didn’t or can’t take the drug? What if the drugs are only available to a select few who can afford them? What if the drugs can permanently enhance thinking? Will there be a moral imperative to take them, because if you can be a better human, why wouldn't you?

Can you use them at work?

Say you are an office manager. If your ultimate goal is productivity, do you care if your employees are taking these drugs? Maybe you’d even encourage them?

Let’s not forget a brain-enhancing drug that’s already present in most US offices - coffee. Why is coffee ok, but a stronger, more specifically helpful drug ethically unacceptable? 

People are already taking them

The fact is, no matter how we answer such questions, people are already using the drugs to improve their work performances.

A recent article by Professor Carl Cederström, who specializes in Organization Theory at Stockholm University, points out examples of spreading smart drug use.

There have been reports of Modafinil (aka Provigil) being popular in Silicon Valley, with techies using it to work twenty-hour days.

As investigated by Nature magazine, smart drugs are also popular among gamers in gaming competitions, with organizers now instituting anti-doping measures.

Not to be outdone, the US Army is trying to create super-soldiers who don’t sleep via its own research involving Modafinil.

Also, up to 20% of Ivy League college students have tried “smart drugs” to improve their academic performance. Most of them used the drugs to write essays and prep for tests. Interestingly, 33% of the students didn’t think it was cheating to use such drugs. Perhaps that number points to how many more students could be taking the drugs.

How many are using nootropics in total? That’s hard to tell. Another report by Nature talks of a study where one in five respondents admitted to using brain-boosting drugs. While there are currently no accurate statistics on the use of smart drugs, anecdotal evidence suggests a significant percentage of professionals use them already and many more could in the future, when the drugs are improved. 

For more on how some people use nootropics, check out this video from Sky News:

Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

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What is the rarest blood type?

Abid Katib/Getty Images
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  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
  • Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system.
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China's "artificial sun" sets new record for fusion power

China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

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