If you could take a pill to boost your concentration and mental stamina, would you do it? Around the country, thousands of college students are already answering “yes” to that question and are using prescription medications like Ritalin as study aids, and researchers say the demand for such “smart pills” is likely to grow. Now, in a new essay, a group of neuroscientists and bioethicists is arguing that society shouldn’t frown on such practices; instead the authors assert that “we should welcome new methods of improving our brain function,” and that doing it with pills is no more morally objectionable than eating right or getting a good night’s sleep [Chronicle of Higher Education].
Stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall are prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and are commonly used by people without a prescription to help them focus their attention, while a narcolepsy drug called Provigil is sometimes used by people trying to keep their brains alert and awake. The new essay cited a recent survey that found nearly 7 percent of students in U.S. universities have used prescription stimulants, and on some campuses, as many as a quarter of students have used the drugs for non-therapeutic purposes. “It’s a felony, but it’s being done,” [coauthor Martha] Farah said [Reuters].
In the essay, published in Nature [subscription required], the authors argue that such usage is likely to become more routine over time. As more effective brain-boosting pills are developed, demand for them is likely to grow among middle-aged people who want youthful memory powers and multitasking workers who need to keep track of multiple demands, said one commentary author, brain scientist Martha Farah…. “Almost everybody is going to want to use it,” Farah said. “I would be the first in line if safe and effective drugs were developed that trumped caffeine,” [said] another author, Michael Gazzaniga [AP].
The authors say that scientists should begin to study the long-term effects of these drugs on healthy people, and investigate whether there’s a risk of addiction. And while the essay is generally supportive of what it calls mental “enhancements,” the authors do suggest two possible downsides to making pharmaceuticals like Ritalin widely available: children could feel coerced into taking the drugs either directly or through peer pressure, the authors say, and the expense of such drugs might limit their use to people with higher incomes, which could heighten social inequalities. Despite such attempts to balance benefits and risks, the commentary didn’t impress Leigh Turner of the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics. “It’s a nice puff piece for selling medications for people who don’t have an illness of any kind,” Turner said [AP].
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