HBR: Like It or Not, “Smart Drugs” Are Coming to the Office

Over the last few months, as part of a new research project, I have talked with five people who regularly use drugs at work. They are all successful in their jobs, financially secure, in stable relationships, and generally content with their lives. None of them have plans to stop using the drugs, and so far they have kept the secret from their employers. But as their colleagues become more likely to start using the same drugs (people talk, after all), will they continue to do so?

I have also tried to get in contact with senior executives who have experience with these drugs (either themselves or in their firms), but without success. I have to wonder: Are they completely unaware of the drugs’ existence? Or are they actively suppressing the issue? For now, companies can ignore the use of smart drugs. And executives can pretend as if these drugs don’t exist in their workplaces. But they can’t do it forever.

1 Like

That’s a pretty worrying article. I think that the author isn’t critical enough and he is over-hyping the safety. (It’s written by an Associate Professor of Organization Theory in Sweden, not a medical professional.)

I tend to be skeptical about “smart drugs” and think that people should look for less riskier ways to focus (like exercise). There are even suspicions that Modafinil might negatively affect memory and creativity (see below).

He writes:

We know that at least some of these drugs are medically safe. According to Anna-Katharine Brem, a coauthor of the Harvard-Oxford study, Modafinil has “vanishingly few side effects” when used in a controlled environment.

But if you click through and search around a bit, there’s actually little information available on the long-term effects, and that it’s only called “safe” for short-term use.

His source says:

While acknowledging that there was limited information available on the effects of long-term use, the reviewers said that the drug appeared safe to take in the short term, with few side effects and no addictive qualities.

His source’s source says:

Sahakian’s research also suggests that prolific use over a prolonged period of time could have a potentially damaging effect on sleep architecture.

(See also discussions about how sleep affects memory.)

I spoke to students who used modafinil during exam periods. They revealed that after several weeks, they had the sensation of permanently being trapped in a twilight zone, neither asleep nor awake.

He believes that long-term use could damage the memory. “Look at nicotine,” he says. "Nicotine is an amazing cognitive enhancer, purely from a lab perspective! But for people who use nicotine chronically, we know their baseline cognitive function goes down and the nicotine is maybe bringing them back up to normal. So now nicotine is no longer a cognitive enhancer, it’s a cognitive normaliser. Because of the chronic use, the brain has adapted and without it, you’re performing at a lower level. There’s no reason to think that modafinil would be any different."

Here’s a study that suggests Modafinil might have negative effects on creativity:

These results indicate that modafinil might reduce divergent thinking of creativity in healthy individuals. They suggest that, rather than being a more general cognitive enhancer, modafinil might have negative and subtle effects on creativity.

Here’s another article with other safety concerns.

Here’s an anecdotal story of dependency:

Over the past four years in particular, I’ve experienced some “downslides” with Modafinil: I gained 30 lbs, became sleep deprived, and acquired a nasty dependency on the stuff.

And another one:

Studies in juvenile rats have shown that even low doses of methylphenidate [Ritalin] can affect developing brains by impairing nerve activity, working memory and the ability to switch between tasks.

Other popular brain-boosting drugs include modafinil, sold as Provigil, a drug used to treat people with narcolepsy and other sleep disorders, as well as for alertness by U.S. Air Force pilots. Modafinil can boost memory, alertness and number ability, and is thought to increase dopamine levels in the synapses between brain cells. But the drug may have similar long-term effects to methylphenidate, research suggests.

Ampakines have been found to improve memory and cognition in healthy human volunteers and in rats, but could pose a threat to young brains.

Abuse of these drugs could overstimulate the nervous system, damaging or killing cells, the researchers said.

Here’s another article about possible side effect of Modafinil:
Performance enhancement at the cost of potential brain plasticity: neural ramifications of nootropic drugs in the healthy developing brain:

This is also interesting:

The ethical issues are a bit concerning as well. I can see how business executives would like to have teams of rigid-minded drones, but it might lead to situations were employees feel forced to take unhealthy medications just to keep their performance reviews high enough to keep their jobs, because most of the other workers are on those stimulants.

1 Like

This remembers me on the movie “Limitless - Everything is possible when you open your mind”. In my opinion, the movie showed both sides of this kind of drugs, which enables to use 100 percent of the brain. I dont want to spoiler if anyone want to look the movie. It is of the year 2011 and shows maybe that the topic was already popular at that time. Its interesting that the topic now is again popular and gets reality.

1 Like

These drugs have been available on just about any campus for over a decade by the time the movie was made. Specifically, ADHD drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin because a prescription can be “easily” obtained.

Much in the same way that the movie Hackers (1995) is an accurate depiction of how computers work.

ps: I know it’s “das erinnert mich an” und “ich erinnere mich an” in German but the former is “reminds” not “remember” in English.

1 Like

I dunno, probably safer than alcohol… not like viagra or botox are any different really… just saying. Plus, the two most commonly used nootropics are caffeine and nicotine… so unless we should all go on a water and raw food intermittent fasting diet and sleep according to sunrise and sunset…

Well sure, it’s not meant for creativity… Adderall (similar to Modafinal) works by increasing the availability of the brain chemicals dopamine and noradrenaline within your prefrontal cortex, thus enhancing executive function… quite the opposite of what you’d need for creativity.

I think that was the main point of the article… just took him a while to get there. I think that makes for a more interesting discussion… rather than the general safety of taking “smart drugs”.

Good to know. I have to confess, in Germany I didnt have any further contact with that drugs. I have never seen somebody with it.

Maybe not on a scientific basis, thats right, but it gives an overview. I dont think that a such a movie has the intention to be as accurate as possible, but it demonstrates the topic to more people. Like you said it, in a good way or in bad way (when the people dont get the clue and instead starting to try these drugs).

Thank you for the tip! A stupid mistake by writing besides.

Kind regards,