Smart drugs: coming soon or here already?
Could academia and the professions be going the same way as some sports? So corrupted by performance-enhancing drugs that it's impossible to tell who's clean.
That is one of the concerns highlighted in a report on drugs that boost the brain - so-called cognition enhancers. The report from the Academy of Medical Sciences was commissioned by the government in 2006 under the leadership of Cambridge University neuroscience expert Sir Gabriel Horn.
He said: 'We see similarities in the future use of cognition enhancers with the current use of performance enhancing drugs in sport. It is likely that the use of cognition enhancers will increase, so an assessment of the social and economic impacts now will allow Government and others to consider "localised" regulation around use in schools, universities and the workplace.'
The report says an increasing number and variety of psychoactive drugs will emerge over the next few decades. These drugs have many potentially important uses in, for example, the treatment of dementia and Alzheimer's Disease, addictions and mental health problems. But they could also be used for purposes for which they are not intended: to boost exam performance or simply to make the user think faster, sleep better or relax more.
Foresight, the government think-tank that called for the report have said that cognitive enhancers could be 'as common as coffee' within a couple of decades.
Nature survey: 1 in 5 are users
This appears to be the case already among some sections of the community. In April, Nature magazine published a survey showing that one in five of its readers - who are mostly researchers and scientists - were taking these drugs to sharpen up.
The most popular was Ritalin (methylphenidate), which is usually prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. Second was the stimulant Provigil (modafinil), followed by beta-blockers (blood-pressure drugs which can also ease anxiety).
One third of those using the drugs in these ways said they'd bought them over the internet. Others, reported the Washington Post, 'got them from pharmacies or with a prescription'.
US experts were reportedly surprised by the numbers involved. 'That people of all ages are taking the stimulant medications was somewhat of a surprise,' Dr Nora Volkow of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse told the paper. 'We didn't expect the number to be so high.'
About 50% of users reported side effects, including headaches, anxiety and sleeplessness. Some stopped using the drugs because of these.
Volkow said there was no evidence to show that these drugs really improved cognitive ability and warned that 'there is no study that has been done that looks at long-term outcomes for taking these drugs.' She said that users risked becoming dependent on them. 'These medications can produce dependence, like methamphetamine and cocaine.'
Finally, after all the fuss about the classification of cannabis, how should these cognition enhancers be classified? Sir Gabriel said: 'The Government's drugs strategy is based on a principle of harm reduction.
'Much more could be done to improve our understanding of the harms associated with different illegal and legal drugs and our knowledge of the prevalence, duration and type of drug use in the population. Only with this information can we assess the harms of different drugs, develop the most appropriate drug classification system and ultimately target our health, police and social resources most effectively.'
- What do you think? Would you take cognition enhancers?
- More on buying drugs online.
- Cartoon from the University of Washington who have a great easy to read introduction to this topic: Neuroscience for kids.
Page created on May 22nd, 2008
Page updated on January 16th, 2010