"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015

RETURN TO THE WORLD SCIENCE HOME PAGE


Brain drugs for healthy people OK: scientists

Dec. 7, 2008
Asociated Press

Halthy peo­ple should have the right to boost their brains with pills, like those pre­scribed for hy­per­ac­tive kids or mem­o­ry-im­paired old­er folks, sev­er­al sci­en­tists con­tend in a pro­voc­a­tive com­men­tary.

Col­lege stu­dents are al­ready il­le­gally tak­ing pre­scrip­tion stim­u­lants like Ri­talin to help them stu­dy, and de­mnd for such drugs is likely to grow else­where, they say.

The stim­u­lants Adder­all and Ri­talin are pre­scribed ma inly for peo­ple with at­ten­tion def­i­cit hy­per­ac­ti­vity dis­or­der, but they can help oth­er peo­ple fo­cus their at­ten­tion and han­dle in­forma­t­ion in their heads, a com­men­tary says. Above, two tab­lets of Ri­ta­lin. (Im­age: US Nat'l Al­co­hol & Drug In­for­ma­tion Clear­ing­house)


“We should wel­come new meth­ods of im­prov­ing our brin func­tion,” and do­ing it with pills is no more mor­ally ob­jec­tion­able than eat­ing right or get­ting a good night’s sleep, these ex­perts wrote in an opin­ion piece pub­lished on­line Sun­day by the jour­nal Na­ture.

The com­men­tary calls for more re­search and a va­ri­e­ty of steps for an­ag­ing the risks.

As more ef­fec­tive brain-boosting pills are de­vel­oped, de­mand for them is likely to grw among mid­dle-aged peo­ple who want youth­ful mem­o­ry pow­ers and mul­ti­task­ing work­ers who need to keep track of mul­ti­ple de­mands, said one com­men­tary au­thor, brain sci­ent­ist Mar­tha Farah of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Penn­syl­va­nia.

“Al­most eve­ry­body is go­ing to wnt to use it,” said Farah.

“I would be the first in line if safe and ef­fec­tive drugs were de­vel­oped that truped caf­feine,” an­oth­er au­thor, Mi­chael Gaz­zaniga of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Cal­i­for­nia, San­ta Bar­ba­ra, de­clared in an e-mail.

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

Some health ex­perts agreed that the is­sue de­serves at­ten­tion. But the com­men­tary did­n’t im­press Ligh Turn­er of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Min­ne­so­ta Cen­ter for Bioeth­ics.

“It’s a nice puff piece for sell­ing med­ica­t­ions for peo­ple who don’t have an ill­ness of any kind,” Trn­er said.

The com­men­tary cites a 2001 sur­vey of about 11,000 Amer­i­can col­lge stu­dents that found 4 per­cent had used pre­scrip­tion stim­u­lants il­le­gally in the pri­or year. But at some col­leges, the fig­ure was as high as 25 per­cent.

“It’s a fel­o­ny, but it’s be­ing dne,” said Farah.

The stim­u­lants Adder­all and Ri­talin are pre­scribed minly for peo­ple with at­ten­tion def­i­cit hy­per­ac­ti­vity dis­or­der, but they can help oth­er peo­ple fo­cus their at­ten­tion and han­dle in­forma­t­ion in their heads, the com­men­tary said.

Anoth­er drug called Provigil is ap­proved for sleep dis­or­ders but is al­so pre­scribed for healthy peo­ple who ned to stay alert when sleep-deprived, the com­men­tary said. Lab stud­ies show it can al­so perk up the brains of well-rest­ed peo­ple. And some drugs de­vel­oped for Alzheimer’s dis­ease al­so pro­vide a mod­est mem­o­ry boost, it said.

Ri­talin is made by Switzerland-based No­var­tis AG, but the drug is al­so avail­a­ble ge­ner­ic­ally. Adder­all is mde by U.K.-based Shire PLC and Mont­vale, N.J.-based Bar­r Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Inc., and some for­mula­t­ions are al­so avail­a­ble ge­ner­ic­ally. Provigil is made by Ceph­a­lon Inc. of Fra­zer, Pa.

While sup­port­ing the con­cept that healthy adults should be able to use brain-boosting drugs, the au­thors caled for:

More re­search in­to the use, ben­e­fits and risks of such drugs. Much is un­knwn about the cur­rent med­ica­t­ions, such as the risk of de­pend­en­cy when used for this pur­pose, the com­men­tary said.

Poli­cies to guard against peo­ple be­ing co­erced in­to ak­ing them. 

Steps to keep the ben­e­fits from mak­ing socio-economic in­equl­i­ties worse. 

Ac­tion by doc­tors, ed­u­ca­tors and oth­ers to de­vel­op poli­cies on the use of such dugs by healthy peo­ple. 

Leg­is­la­tive ac­tion to al­low drug com­pa­nies to mar­ket the drugs to healthy peo­ple if they meet reg­u­la­tory sta­dards for safe­ty and ef­fec­tiveness. 

No­ra Volkow, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional In­sti­tute on Drug Abuse, said she agreed with the com­men­tary that the nonpe­scribed use of brain-boosting drugs must be stud­ied. 

But she said she was con­cerned that wid­er use of stim­u­lants could lead more peo­ple to be­cme ad­dict­ed to them. That’s what hap­pened dec­ades ago when they were widely pre­scribed for a va­ri­e­ty of dis­or­ders, she said. 

“Whether we lke it or not, that prop­er­ty of stim­u­lants is not go­ing to go away,” she said. 

Er­ik Parens, a sen­ior re­sarch schol­ar at the Hast­ings Cen­ter, a bioeth­ics think tank in Gar­ri­son, N.Y., said the com­men­tary makes a con­vinc­ing case that “we ought to be open­ing this up for pub­lic scru­ti­ny and pub­lic con­versa­t­ion.” 

One chal­lenge will be find­ing ways to pro­tect peo­ple against sub­tle co­er­cion to use the drugs, the kind of thng par­ents feel when neigh­bor kids sign up for SAT prep cours­es, he said. 

And if the na­tion moves to pro­vid­ing a bas­ic pack­age of health care to all its cit­i­zens, it’s hard to see how it culd af­ford to in­clude brain-boosting drugs, he said. If they have to be bought sep­a­rate­ly, it raises the ques­tion about pro­mot­ing so­ci­e­tal in­equal­i­ties, he said.


* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend









 

Sign up for
e-newsletter
   
 
subscribe
 
cancel

On Home Page         

LATEST

  • St­ar found to have lit­tle plan­ets over twice as old as our own

  • “Kind­ness curricu­lum” may bo­ost suc­cess in pre­schoolers

EXCLUSIVES

  • Smart­er mice with a “hum­anized” gene?

  • Was black­mail essen­tial for marr­iage to evolve?

  • Plu­to has even cold­er “twin” of sim­ilar size, studies find

  • Could simple an­ger have taught people to coop­erate?

MORE NEWS

  • F­rog said to de­scribe its home through song

  • Even r­ats will lend a help­ing paw: study

  • D­rug may undo aging-assoc­iated brain changes in ani­mals

Healthy people should have the right to boost their brains with pills, like those prescribed for hyperactive kids or memory-impaired older folks, several scientists contend in a provocative commentary. College students are already illegally taking prescription stimulants like Ritalin to help them study, and demand for such drugs is likely to grow elsewhere, they say. “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, these experts wrote in an opinion piece published online Sunday by the journal Nature. The commentary calls for more research and a variety of steps for managing the risks. As more effective brain-boosting pills are developed, demand for them is likely to grow among middle-aged people who want youthful memory powers and multitasking workers who need to keep track of multiple demands, said one commentary author, brain scientist Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania. “Almost everybody is going to want to use it,” said Farah. “I would be the first in line if safe and effective drugs were developed that trumped caffeine,” another author, Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California, Santa Barbara, declared in an e-mail. 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 Rockefeller University in New York. Two authors said they consult for pharmaceutical companies; Farah said she had no such financial ties. Some health experts agreed that the issue deserves attention. But the commentary didn’t impress Leigh Turner of the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics. “It’s a nice puff piece for selling medications for people who don’t have an illness of any kind,” Turner said. The commentary cites a 2001 survey of about 11,000 American college students that found 4 percent had used prescription stimulants illegally in the prior year. But at some colleges, the figure was as high as 25 percent. “It’s a felony, but it’s being done,” said Farah. The stimulants Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed mainly for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but they can help other people focus their attention and handle information in their heads, the commentary said. Another drug called Provigil is approved for sleep disorders but is also prescribed for healthy people who need to stay alert when sleep-deprived, the commentary said. Lab studies show it can also perk up the brains of well-rested people. And some drugs developed for Alzheimer’s disease also provide a modest memory boost, it said. Ritalin is made by Switzerland-based Novartis AG, but the drug is also available generically. Adderall is made by U.K.-based Shire PLC and Montvale, N.J.-based Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc., and some formulations are also available generically. Provigil is made by Cephalon Inc. of Frazer, Pa. While supporting the concept that healthy adults should be able to use brain-boosting drugs, the authors called for: More research into the use, benefits and risks of such drugs. Much is unknown about the current medications, such as the risk of dependency when used for this purpose, the commentary said. Policies to guard against people being coerced into taking them. Steps to keep the benefits from making socio-economic inequalities worse. Action by doctors, educators and others to develop policies on the use of such drugs by healthy people. Legislative action to allow drug companies to market the drugs to healthy people if they meet regulatory standards for safety and effectiveness. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said she agreed with the commentary that the nonprescribed use of brain-boosting drugs must be studied. But she said she was concerned that wider use of stimulants could lead more people to become addicted to them. That’s what happened decades ago when they were widely prescribed for a variety of disorders, she said. “Whether we like it or not, that property of stimulants is not going to go away,” she said. Erik Parens, a senior research scholar at the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank in Garrison, N.Y., said the commentary makes a convincing case that “we ought to be opening this up for public scrutiny and public conversation.” One challenge will be finding ways to protect people against subtle coercion to use the drugs, the kind of thing parents feel when neighbor kids sign up for SAT prep courses, he said. And if the nation moves to providing a basic package of health care to all its citizens, it’s hard to see how it could afford to include brain-boosting drugs, he said. If they have to be bought separately, it raises the question about promoting societal inequalities, he said.