If 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