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The ethics of brain boosting

pill take punchstock.JPGIf you believed some of the more sensationalist headlines, you might think that a commentary paper published in Nature yesterday was urging everyone to go out and source illegal drugs to boost their brain function.

Sample headlines include ‘Let all pop pills for brain, experts urge’ and ‘Uppers for everyone, scientists say’. Admittedly, that is catchier than the title of the article in question: ‘Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy’.

“The article, while libertarian in spirit, is absolutely not saying: ‘use these drugs, everybody’,” says Philip Campbell, one of the paper’s authors and editor of Nature.

“My advice is to avoid taking such drugs unless you have been prescribed them. It is a serious felony to sell such drugs off-prescription in the US; in the UK, Ritalin, for example, is a class B drug, so that un-prescribed possession is punishable by prison and a fine. Furthermore, these drugs have undergone no clinical trials for use by healthy people. And they do have side-effects.”

The key word in the commentary article title is ‘responsible’. As the paper notes people are already buying and selling illegal drugs do boost their performance. What is needed, the authors’ argue, is an evidence based approach to evaluating cognitive enhancement, and a programme of research on their use by healthy individuals.

“Society shouldn’t reject them just because they’re pharmaceutical enhancements,” lead author Henry Greely, of Stanford Law School, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Greely and the other authors note:

Like all new technologies, cognitive enhancement can be used well or poorly. We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function. … Safe and effective cognitive enhancers will benefit both the individual and society.

But it would also be foolish to ignore problems that such use of drugs could create or exacerbate. With this, as with other technologies, we need to think and work hard to maximize its benefits and minimize its harms.

However Leigh Turner, of the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics, did not like the article. “It’s a nice puff piece for selling medications for people who don’t have an illness of any kind,” Turner told AP.

As the San Francisco Chronicle notes, this is not the first time Nature has tackled the issue of cognitive enhancement, with a 2007 piece stating that some scientists use them and several follow up items and a survey. “That raised a renewed flurry of blog posts, news stories and sensational monikers for the phenomenon, such as “brain doping” and ‘brain steroids’,” says the paper.

More from Nature

Professor’s little helper – 20 December 2007

The action of enhancers can lead to addiction – 31 January 2008

Drugs can be used to treat more than disease – 31 January 2008

Poll results: look who’s doping – 9 April 2008

Would you boost your brain power?

Image: Punchstock


  1. Report this comment

    gjdagis said:

    There is one significant problem with the use of these medications. If one were to employ one to boost performance on a test, unless a person would be under it’s influence permanently, the result on such a test would represent a spike rather than a true indication of their capabilities !

  2. Report this comment

    Mr. Gunn said:

    Test performance is only one aspect of overall cognitive performance(and the medicines under discussion only work on a subset of test-related abilities), so that shouldn’t present a major hurdle.

  3. Report this comment

    Tammy said:

    “This commentary ignores recent studies that show Ritalin to be ineffective in performance enhancement over a three year period and harmful to growth and development in children, yet somehow these drugs are now considered the magic bullet for adults? It should raise alarm bells,” states Steve Bordley, President of TrekDesk, a treadmill desk manufacturer. “None of these medications can make the claim that they boost memory and cognitive abilities, increase the amount of small blood vessels in the brain as much as 43%, or reduce the incidence of stroke, dementia or Alzheimer’s over the long term. But a daily walking regimen accomplishes this without any potential risks and a long list of additional health benefits as well. You hear very little about this because no one makes any money telling you walking is the answer.”

    Categorizing these drugs as “smart drugs” seems to be both an oxymoron and a brilliant marketing ploy, exploiting American’s drive to be at the top of their game.

  4. Report this comment

    Rafael Olivé Leite said:

    Ritalin was devoloped by Japan in WWII aiming to have more “focused” pilots during air combats.

    Long-term use of the drug causes arterial hypertension, cardiac arrithmia, hypertrophic cardiomyiopathy, sudden death, and prevents childrem and teenagers from growing neurologic to adults, by inhibiting the formation of the synaptic pathways that characterize and adult.

    Here in Brazil it´s being widelly used to “calm down” childrem in school and home, and as a “mind booster” for young college or high school students.

    Its use is based on a newlly discovered “disease”, that already born with its treatment, namely atention deficit and Ritalin. The “experts” aplly a query on childrem, them get the boy or girl doped for years on.

    Basically, if a 9 year-old boy doesn´t stays sat in the class an entire morning, he is probably a case who might deserve some Ritalin.

    I deplore the “phylosophical” concerns of this article, like pretending it´d be better for mankind to have sedated childrem in school. It was so shocking that made me wonder if it was written under some old-fashioned mind-expanding drug. Or maybe some mind-expanding bank account.

    Anyway, it´d be funnier and less dangerous if the authors exorted mankind to take Viagra everyday.

  5. Report this comment

    Becky said:

    Well, I think drinking coffee, smoking and a glass of wine, let alone all the pills and medication, are all used by a lot of people to ‘boost their brain’.

    I think a good night sleep and sport keep the brains sharper than anything else.

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