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Pill wars: should we use drugs to boost our brains?

Publication Date: 
May 10, 2009
The Christian Science Monitor
Gregory M. Lamb

Professor Henry T. "Hank" Greely is quoted in The Christian Science Monitor in an article about the use of drugs to improve brain performance:

In the current debate over brain boosters, the focal point of much of the discussion has been a commentary in the December issue of Nature. Seven prominent bioethicists noted that the drugs "are 'disruptive technologies' that could have a profound effect on human life in the twenty-first century." While calling for more research to better understand the safety and effectiveness of use in healthy individuals, the piece went on to advocate that "mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs."

In the months since, the paper has met with both hearty approval and deep reservations from scientists and other bioethicists. "Anything that can help our brains deal better with the complex challenges of the twenty-first century is to be not only welcomed but actively sought," wrote Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, in a letter to the journal.

The commentary served its purpose to "kick up" a needed discussion, says Henry Greely, a bioethicist and professor of law at Stanford University and one of the coauthors of the Nature commentary. He received far more e-mails about the article than for any other he's published. The aim, he said, was to argue that "enhancement is not fundamentally a dirty word."

"I think people should think of [drugs] as just one more of many different ways we try to improve our minds," Dr. Greely says. "I'm a teacher. I'm in the enhancement business. I'm trying to enhance my students' brains."


Many argue that more research is needed on existing drugs before we start thinking about new ones. Greely, for one, says we don't have any "real evidence about the effects, short-term or long-term," of Adderall and Ritalin, which are both used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, on healthy people. As companies seek approval from the FDA for new drugs, if they seem likely to be used for enhancement, "we should require some research on those off-label uses," he says.