Is it okay to use smart drugs?
In the past 5 years or so, there has been a huge increase in lifestyle use of prescription drugs that can enhance cognitive function in various ways. These so-called “smart drugs” include the stimulants methylphenidate (better known by its trade name, Ritalin), which is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and modafinil (also known as Provigil), used as a treatment for narcolepsy.
Off-label use of smart drugs is particularly prevalent among students, who face increasing pressure to improve their academic performance. They therefore take these drugs in an effort to focus their attention for longer periods of time and boost their overall productivity.
According to a 2008 survey conducted by the journal Nature, the use of smart drugs is increasing among academics, too. One in five of the approximately 1,600 researchers who responded to the survey said that they had used smart drugs – with Ritalin being the most popular – to focus their attention, memory or concentration.
Is it okay to boost brain function in this way? The question has divided the scientific community. Some researchers say ‘no’ for safety reasons: we still don’t know the consequences of taking smart drugs for long periods of time, and youngsters are particularly at risk because their brains continue to develop well into early adulthood. And the ease with which anyone can buy smart drugs online also raises concern.
Some object to cognitive enhancement on ethical grounds: it may increase the inequalities already present in society, because not everyone could afford to buy the drugs. And what about those who object because they think it would give an unfair advantage? Would they feel pressured into popping brain-boosting pills just to keep up with the others?
Others say that enhancement is not a dirty word, that more research should be done, and that the public should work together with scientists and policy makers to regulate the use of smart drugs. They emphasize the potential benefits that cognitive enhancement could bring to society. Recent research shows, for example, that smart drugs can improve the performance of sleep-deprived surgeons and nightshift workers. The U.S., British, French and Chinese military forces now use Modafinil routinely to combat fatigue in troops, and the drug has also been shown to improve some aspects of cognitive function in psychiatric patients.
Last year, the Wellcome Trust commissioned the second wave of its Monitor Survey, which was designed to assess the UK general public’s level of awareness and attitude toward this controversial issue. This is the most representative such survey to date, and included responses from nearly 1,400 adults and 400 young people aged 14-18.
The results show that opinion is similarly divided: About one-third of adults and young people said that long-term use of smart drugs to improve focus, memory or attention, or occasional use to improve exam performance or something similar, was acceptable, while about one-third said that it was unacceptable.
The results also suggest that the use of smart drugs is less widespread among the general public than within universities, with only 29 adults (or 2% of the total sample) and 9 young people (or 1%) saying that they had ever taken prescription medications for that purpose.
What’s your opinion? Join the debate using the Wellcome Trust’s Big Picture app.