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Popularity Of Brain-Boost Pills Drives Debate

Publication Date: 
July 05, 2009
Arizona Republic
Ginger Rough

Professor Henry T. "Hank" Greely is quoted in The Arizona Republic about the debate over brain enhancing drugs:

The market for products that sharpen and prolong Americans' mental powers likely has never been larger.

And now, it is expanding into a new, and potentially more revolutionary, phase.

Prescription drugs designed to treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy are turning up in the hands of healthy college students and professionals who are using them illegally as "cognitive enhancers."

The trend is fueling a widespread debate among physicians, bioethicists and scientists who worry about the possible short- and long-term health effects as well as the moral implications of altering our brain chemistry.


Should cognitive-enhancement medications become widely available, it will raise many legal, regulatory and ethical questions, experts say.

Those questions center primarily around safety, fairness and coercion, said Henry "Hank" Greely, a bioethicist and professor of law at Stanford University.

Suppose someone invents a drug that can help surgeons, air-traffic controllers or the average American worker perform better by keeping them more alert or boosting their memory. Do the potential benefits outweigh the risk of side effects, many of which are still unknown? Who should get the drug, and under what circumstances? And will coercion become an issue?

"If your boss says, 'You've been slipping a little bit; we think you should take these pills,' should we allow that?" Greely asks. "Your employer can make you go to seminars, make you go to training. Can they tell you to take cognitive enhancers?"


Still, Greely is among those who believe that cognitive enhancement through pharmaceuticals could be beneficial to society.

In a controversial December article in Nature magazine, he and others pointed out that such advances could help improve quality of life, make it easier to be more productive at work for longer periods of time, and stave off normal, age-related declines in memory and brain function.

Fears of cheating, inequity and risks should not stop the research.

"Enhancement is not a dirty word," Greely said, "and we shouldn't reject the idea in a knee-jerk fashion."