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Experts Meet in London to Discuss Smart Pill Concerns

October 13, 2008 06:55 PM
by Shannon Firth
Researchers and ethicists disagree over whether neuro-enhancers like Provigil and Ritalin should be used for nonmedical purposes, like improving work performance.
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According to a study published in the scientific journal Nature, one in five adults surveyed, including students and professionals, said they take mind-enhancing drugs for nonmedical purposes, such as staying alert or focused. Experts met today in London to discuss this developing trend.

Professor Barbara Sahakian, a neuropsychologist feels that safety research is crucial to understanding and coping with the problem. Sahakian's own research has found that 17 percent of U.S. college students have taken Ritalin for off-label uses. Moreover, as the drugs spread to younger children, Sahakian worries about possible damage to their developing brains. John Harris, a bioethics professor at the University of Manchester does not view the expanded use of neuro-enhancers as a crisis: "If these cognitive enhancing drugs make our lives better and make us better able to concentrate and better able to perform, this would surely be a good thing." 

In the survey, 20 percent of 1,400 international respondents, mainly academics and scientists, said that they had taken these drugs to “improve workplace performance.” Twice as many respondents reported taking the drugs for their off-label uses than for their prescribed uses, and a third of respondents would give their children medicine to help them with their schoolwork if students at a rival high school were taking the same pills. A 66-year-old respondent defended his reason for taking the pills: “As a professional, it is my duty to use my resources to the greatest benefit of humanity. If ‘enhancers’ can contribute to this humane service, it is my duty to do so.”

Science Live interviewed students and professors at the University of Cambridge Science Festival in February, asking about the social and ethical implications of “smart drugs.” One student confessed, “If you want to go to the best university and you know you’re not the smartest in the whole of the country … I would take the drug.” Conversely, a University of Cambridge professor said, “If it’s going to change the innate ability of people then I’d start to get worried, because that gets into biological engineering and I think we need to debate about that.”

Zack Lynch, founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization, believes that the drugs will become more widely used around the globe. Lynch hypothesized, "If you're GE Capital and you have offices in 154 financial centers around the planet, and these [brain-drug] tools are available in Dubai, and your workers there are trading more effectively, 5 to 10 percent better—they'll have a neuro-competitive advantage over workers where these tools are not legalized," he told the National Journal.

Scientists in England are considering using urine tests to measure students’ smart drug intake. Les Iversen, a pharmacologist at Oxford University and a member of the Academy of Medical Sciences Panel, said to The Times of London, “If and when really effective drugs become available, and only rich people can afford them, they would have a grossly unfair advantage in exams.”

In the United States, critics of “smart drugs” are concerned about the recent Neurotechnology Initiative Act [NNITV] brought to Congress this past May. The bill, if passed, would increase government funding by $200 million per year, increase the staff of the Food and Drug Administration and speed up the process of approving drugs related to brain and nervous system disorders. While the bill aims to expedite the treatment and prevention of diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia, many of the treatments for these illnesses double as “smart drugs.”

Fleur Britten, who writes for The Times of London, decided to try Modifinil, the generic form of Provigil, which is a drug prescribed for narcolepsy, to see what the “buzz” was about. After downing the pill, Britten writes, “Streams of consciousness babble endlessly; I feel spirited and industrious … I fantasise about Thatcher-style productivity. Perhaps this is the key to the mythological 25-hour day?” Britten’s problem came later: “Wide-eyed at 2am, I reached for a sleeping pill. And another. … I ended up taking three times the normal dose.”

Anjan Chatterjee, who researches the drugs, calls the practice of using them for off-label purposes “cosmetic neurology.” She believes one possible outcome of the exploding market of neuro-enhancers could be that doctors will become more like “quality of life consultants,” and worries about what shifting the decision-making role from doctor to patients will mean for both parties.

Related Topics: Improving brain function without using drugs

Daniele Piomelli at the University of California at Irvine who researches PTSD, told the New Scientist that altering our memory capacity may not be too clever. “Ultimately, we may remember things we don’t want to.” The article highlights ten additional ways to “a better brain,” including diet, exercise, listening to music, sleep, and memory tricks.

Recent research, in fact, shows that regular exercise may benefit the mind as well as the body. Exercise encourages new brain cells to grow and regenerate, thus strengthening brainpower.

Audio: Understanding adult ADHD

While some are using the drugs even if they don’t really need them, others say no even if a doctor prescribes them. Robert Jergen, author of “The Little Monster: Growing up with ADHD,” no longer takes any medication for his ADHD. Jergen said, “I learned how to utilize this energy that we have and become hyper-productive.” He finished his Ph.D. in two years, and at the time of an interview with NPR, was beginning on his seventh book in three years. Dr. Hallowell, author of “Driven to Distraction,” explores the stigma of ADHD especially in men, in the NPR segment: “What they are usually afraid of is that [being diagnosed] will take control away from them, it will change their personalities, and take away their creativity. It’s simply like eyeglasses … you’re able to make use of the talents you have.”
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