Performing Poorly? The Solution's a No-Brainer: Just Pop a Smart Pill! ROGAINE FOR THE BRAIN
By Michael Schrage

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Work-hard/play-hard fast-track executive. Forty-plus. Male. Divorced. A tad insecure. Recovering from a George Stephanopoulos-sized bout with burnout. Zoloft helped. Tremendously. Uses Rogaine. Very successfully. Tried Viagra. Twice. Admired the results. Got a legal prescription. Getting ready for major shareholder presentation in five cities over three days. Takes two tabs of Cognuxe, the new FDA-approved cognitive enhancer that significantly boosts powers of concentration, retention, and recall for up to 72 hours. Known side effects: Mild headache, dry mouth, and occasional blurred vision. Long-term side effects: Unknown.

Cognuxe doesn't exist, of course, but it will. Research on Alzheimer's disease and other neural disorders will surely spawn a pharmacopoeia of "smart pills" and "brain boosters." Such drugs may be in the regulatory pipeline. Millions of folks already pop gingko and St.-John's-wort pills with the (unfounded) expectation that their memory and mood will improve. What happens when double-blind clinical trials finally confirm the existence of compounds that do have the power to significantly enhance the ability to think under pressure? Do these new "Viagras for the mind" and "Rogaines for the brain" become global bestsellers? Or will they be treated as the evil biochemical cousins of cocaine, crank, and steroids?

If the past truly is prologue, the introduction of credible cognitive enhancers into the market will have as big an impact on business management as silicon and software combined. If the drugs are as easy to acquire as, say, a prescription antidepressant, then we'll see business people gobbling them up the way that they once washed down their three martinis with lunch. After all, there's a very thin line between altering moods and altering thoughts. If the drugs are declared illegal, there will be a black market rivaling the cocaine cartels of the 1980s in size; and if the drugs are rigorously regulated, there will be the sort of gray markets that have appeared in the case of Viagra and of human growth hormone for shorter but otherwise normal children.

The best insight into this probable future comes from the only global industry as performance-conscious as the markets: sports. Performance-enhancing drugs have become as much a part of elite athletic performance as altitude training, weight lifting, and diet. Even bobsledders get caught up in drug-testing scandals. The International Olympic Committee can't seem to decide how strict or how cavalier to be about drug use by its world-class athletes. America's Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Football League seem equally conflicted. Anabolic steroids and blood doping are ostensibly forbidden. But who really knows just how widely and how often they are used? The inarguable reality is that these performance boosters work well. They can make the difference between someone's achieving a celebrated world record or sinking to anonymous mediocrity.

Survey after survey indicates that ambitious athletes acknowledge they would deliberately take drugs that might shorten their lives or cripple them in exchange for the chance of boosting their performance by a few tenths of a second, a few meters, or a few kilograms. And yes, Mark McGwire did take the absolutely legal compound creatine on his way to hitting 70 home runs last year. Did it make a difference? Well, it was a record.

It requires no great leap of the imagination to picture forex and equity traders in New York City, London, Shanghai, and Tokyo popping an extra Cognuxe on days when a triple witching hour occurs. Where trading desks once handed out aspirin or acetaminophen for headaches, they'll offer "brain boosters" instead. The quants who design synthetic securities might brainstorm while chemically enhanced. Software gods at Microsoft and Yahoo already joke about their diets of Hostess Twinkies and Jolt cola. Do you think their cultures would discourage chemical cognitive enhancement?

At world-class companies from General Electric to Intel to Hyundai, employees are being pushed to "work smarter." Just what does that mean when taking the right pills or wearing the right patch will help make that employee remember more faster? Perhaps employee training becomes more cost effective when employees pop their pills. Maybe taking a Cognuxe becomes a precondition for a training program. If cognitive enhancers are safer than cigarettes and just as legal, then precisely what great principle is involved here? You can be sure some companies will try to get their HMOs to pay for their employees' brain boosters.

Indeed, Bear Stearns Chairman Ace Greenberg recently made a stir by creating a $1 million fund to help poorer males purchase Viagra tablets. Which billionaire philanthropist will set up a comparable Cognuxe fund? Or do flaccid minds warrant less care and attention than other organs?

Of course, telling your child to study hard and do her homework while you're taking your memory tablet before work raises the nastily hypocritical image of parents who smoke and drink yet demand that their children refrain from recreational drugs.

But these pharmaceuticals are designed to succeed precisely because they aren't recreational. The whole work ethic surrounding how people should learn will dramatically change. So will we make high schoolers who do extraordinarily well on their SATs pee into a cup? How about Nobel Prize winners?

The answer, of course, is no. The more important question is, What happens to the workplace when having access to the right drugs becomes as important to marketplace effectiveness as access to the right networks?

MICHAEL SCHRAGE is a Merrill Lynch Forum Innovation Fellow and a research associate with the MIT Media Lab. He may be reached via e-mail at