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Experts Back Brain Boosters For All

Publication Date: 
December 12, 2008
The Globe And Mail
Anne McIlroy
Professor Henry T. "Hank" Greely is quoted in an article in The Globe and Mail about the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by healthy people:

Your son is in his final year of high school and says some of the other students are taking Ritalin to help them concentrate while they study and write exams.

The drug may help him get into the university of his choice or win a scholarship. He wants to try it. What do you say?

Surveys suggest that in the United States, an increasing number of healthy university students are using so-called cognitive-enhancing drugs such as Ritalin and modafinil to improve their academic performance. One found that on some campuses, as many as one in four students used these kinds of drugs to get better marks, and that over all 7 per cent had done so.<./p>


In their commentary in Nature, Stanford University's Henry Greely and his colleagues argue that taking Ritalin before an exam is no different from eating well or getting enough sleep.

The seven authors, from the United States and Britain, include ethics experts and the editor-in-chief of Nature as well as scientists. They developed their case at a seminar funded by Nature and the Rockefeller University in New York. Two authors said they consult for pharmaceutical companies. The others reported no such financial ties.

"Recent research has identified beneficial neural changes engendered by exercise, nutrition and sleep. In short, cognitive-enhancing drugs seem morally equivalent to other, more familiar enhancements," they argue in the commentary.


But isn't allowing some students to use the drugs while others don't similar to giving only half the people in a class calculators for a math exam? Dr. Greely and his colleagues argue that this kind of unfairness already exists.

"Differences in education, including private tutoring, preparatory courses and other enriching experiences give some students an advantage over others," they write.


Learning more about how the drugs work might lead to greater acceptance of people taking them for non-medical reasons, Dr. Greely and his colleagues say.

If these medications improve long-term learning, they offer the potential of new discoveries and innovations, they write in Nature. You can't say that about an athlete taking steroids to win Olympic gold.