Promiscuous Facts

The Slippery Science of Brain Studies

Why scientists should be allowed to take brain-enhancing drugs

We need scientists to self-experiment with Ritalin and Provigil for us.
20% of scientists responding to a survey in Nature claimed to have used cognitive-boosting drugs, including Ritalin and Provigil (Modafinil) to enable them to perform better, sleep more efficiently, or increase their concentration or memory. These are the same drugs given daily to millions of children in the US to improve school performance. In most cases it looks like the scientists' use was either illegal or quasi-legal at best. Yet scientists should not have to take these drugs clandestinely. Instead their use should be an open experiment in the advantages and disadvantages of these drugs.

The US has been slow to give these drugs a proper screening, partly because it seems to have an all-or-nothing, medically-good or socially-evil approach to drugs. Either a drug is good because it helps bring someone up to normal (like Ritalin or Adderall for attention-deficit disorder) or it is evil because the very fact that it enhances daily life threatens to become addictive. In some cases, the same drug, e.g. amphetamine, is both evil (as speed) and good (as Adderall), yet the latter are prescribed to and advertised as helping to "improve academic productivity". Unfortunately, we know tragically little about the effects of decades long daily dosages of these drugs on the children who are receiving them. These kids are part of a transformative but uncontrolled social experiment.

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Pediatrician & fellow PsyToday blogger, Lawrence Diller has suggested in his fascinating book, The Last Normal Child, that we are in the midst of a major shift in cognitive enhancement around these drugs. He has encountered more and more parents and children approaching him to prescribe ritalin and other ADHD drugs explicitly to improve their test scores and they want to take them only while studying and taking the tests. Ritalin-like drugs are regularly being sold under the table at high schools and colleges across the country for the same reasons. A kind-of-truth seems to be emerging: ritalin-like drugs work, at least in some people, and they have few side-effects, at least in the short term. It is a new ethical dilemma for students that I have talked to: Is taking ritalin for the SATs or a final "cheating" or just leveling the field? (Some other week, I'll revisit a similar debate over the use of drugs in chess and bridge when these "sports" attempted to join the Olympics. For now see slashdot on "mind doping").

My modest proposal: Scientists are already doing the drugs, so let's go ahead and acknowledge this as a grand clinical trial and see what works. Scientists are the perfect subjects to collectively self-study these drugs. Their careers depend on long-term constant and consistent production of quality cognitive work. They have many incentives to experiment with drugs that might help them in this, and as scientists, they are well-trained in keeping track of data. Presumably, if side-effects occurred, they would be deemed not worth the risk of slightly better concentration or memory, and colleagues could be enrolled to note psychological changes. Aside from their natural competitiveness, scientists are good at sharing data, and the pooled collective information about these drugs would be invaluable to our society, nation, and the world.

Full disclosure: I haven't tried these cognitive enhancing drugs. I'd prefer to have more data.

Joseph Dumit, Ph.D., is an anthropologist and Director of Science & Technology Studies at UC Davis. He is the author of Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans in Biomedical America.

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