Are 'smart pills' the best way to stay sharp?

Story highlights

  • People in high-performance industries increasingly turn to cognitive enhancement drugs, known as nootropics
  • Advocates argue they can improve memory and focus, among other benefits
  • Expert studies have shown few negative side effects and areas suited to the use of such substances
  • Pressure on employers, regulators to take a firm position on contentious issue

Smart Business explores the ways companies are thinking smart to thrive in our digitized world.

(CNN)How did you wake yourself up this morning? Perhaps through a morning run, or hitting the yoga mat. You might favor good old caffeine, or new-age nutritional supplements.

Tom Rice, a London-based film producer in his late 20s, has a new routine. It includes a little fish oil, a shot of espresso, and 800mg of the cognitive-enhancement drug Piracetam.
"It enables you to think quicker and feel sharper," says Rice. "Although I've only started recently so it's hard to quantify the full effects."
    Rice has held a longstanding interest in nootropics -- substances that improve brain function -- as a means of enhancing his performance in a demanding business that requires tireless application.
    "I have previously taken Modafinil (also known as Provigil) and found it incredibly useful when I really need to focus... when I have a lot of practical stuff to do, like writing emails and reading scripts."
    The producer emphasizes the value of healthy sleep and balanced diet, but through research and networking, has also developed an open attitude to cognitive enhancement.
    "I don't want to be on the frontier trying designer drugs but there are interesting developments that are worth keeping tabs on. Piracetam has been around since the 1970s, and from reading the accounts and the research, I felt the risk was negligible.
    "I'm not desperate to find solutions to the problems I'm facing, but at the same time I'd love to find something that makes me function more effectively if it has a track record showing it is safe and effective."
    A growing trend
    Rice's approach is very far from unusual. "Smart drugs" that first entered the market in the mid-20th century, often through army experiments to keep fighters alert, have now reached saturation point in education, the start-up scene and many of the most demanding industries.