In an opinion piece in the December 11 issue of the British science journal Nature, seven authors including scientists, ethics experts and the editor-in-chief of the journal, called for the right of all healthy people to use brain-enhancing drugs like Ritalin and Adderall (usually prescribed for attention deficit hyperactive disorder) and Provigil, a sleep disorder drug.
[Because Nature is a subscription-only website, I am relying on an AP story about the article published in The Dana Foundation’s monthly print newspaper, Brain in the News.]
Although it is illegal, American college students have been using these prescription drugs for years to boost their brain power and concentration.
“’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, the authors wrote.”
Personally, I don’t believe pharmaceuticals can be equated, in their moral ordering, with a healthy diet and sleep. An ethicist who is not involved with the Nature group sees this advocacy as nothing more than another avenue to enrich the pharmaceutical companies:
“It’s a nice puff piece,” said Leigh Turner of the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics, “for selling medications for people who don’t have an illness of any kind.”
Maybe so, although the authors claim no financial ties to drug companies. Nevertheless, I am intrigued, especially for old people.
Perhaps some TGB readers have been mildly disturbed, as I have, by an occasional lag time between conceiving an as-yet unarticulated thought and finding the words for it. This gap is only some number of nanoseconds – like a hiccup of blank space - but it is enough to call attention to itself and I don’t recall it happening until the last few years. Before then, the thought and the words appeared simultaneously – or close enough that I didn’t notice any slippage.
To be clear, this lag time isn’t connected with memory lapses like forgetting where the car keys are or wondering why I opened the refrigerator. In those cases, I forgot something I knew a short time earlier. This new-ish brain phenomenon is about a new idea traveling from thought to language more slowly than in the past.
If that slowdown is a function of an aging brain, it seems to me that brain-boosting drugs, which are good for increasing concentration, would help sharpen elders’ declining cognitive function.
Messing around with the brain in any manner can be dangerous business and the authors are not calling for immediate approval of existing drugs for this off-label use. They are urging research into it and they mention several areas for study: risk of dependency or addiction; policies to guard against coercion to take the drugs and to protect against worsening socio-economic inequality.
That last point is critical unless we are interested in giving a few people an unfair advantage by turning them into a cognitive elite - mental equivalents of A-Rod and Barry Bonds.
Also, although not noted, it would be important to know exactly how the drugs affect what parts of brains and what side-effects there might be – especially in elders. It is known (although not widely enough) that standard dosages of some drugs affect old people differently from mid-age people.
Although no drugs specifically created to enhance brain power yet exist, one bioethicist interviewed for the AP story lauds the authors for making a convincing case that “we ought to be opening this up for public scrutiny and public conversation.” One of the authors told the AP reporter:
“I would be the first in line if safe and effective drugs were developed that trumped caffeine,”
I wouldn’t go that far. Oh - well, maybe I would. Maybe it would depend on whether that lag time is going to expand as I get older. What do you think?
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Sydney Halet tells the story of Zayde’s Cat – and in the reading, you’ll learn a little Yiddish too.]