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Brain Drugs For The Healthy

December 8, 2008

Scientists released a hotly debated commentary Sunday stating that healthy people should have the right to boost their brains with pills, like those prescribed for hyperactive kids or memory-impaired older folks.

“We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function,” and doing it with pills is no more morally objectionable than eating right or getting a good night’s sleep, these experts wrote in an opinion piece published online Sunday by the journal Nature.

They say college students are already illegally taking prescription stimulants like Ritalin to aid their study time, and demand for such drugs is likely to grow elsewhere.

Brain scientist Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania said as effective brain-boosting pills are developed, demand for them is likely to grow among middle-aged people who want youthful memory powers.

“Almost everybody is going to want to use it,” said Farah.

“I would be the first in line if safe and effective drugs were developed that trumped caffeine,” said another author, Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Many health experts agreed that the issue deserves attention, but 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.

The commentary says four percent of 11,000 American college students that took part in a survey used prescription stimulants illegally in the prior year, but the figure was 25 percent at other places.

“It’s a felony, but it’s being done,” said Farah.

The experts wrote that stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but they can help other people focus their attention and handle complex information.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said she agreed that the non-prescribed use of brain-boosting drugs must be studied, because people could become addicted.

“Whether we like it or not, that property of stimulants is not going to go away,” she said.

Erik Parens, a senior research scholar at the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank in Garrison, N.Y., said the expert commentary is convincing, “we ought to be opening this up for public scrutiny and public conversation.”

He said a major obstacle is protecting people against coercion to use the drugs.

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