Brain-boosting drugs: Why not?, experts say

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Healthy people are increasingly turning to brain-enhancing drugs like Ritalin to boost their performance in school or at work, researchers said on Monday.

File photo illustration of pills of all kinds, shapes and colours, March 2003. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

And while some expressed alarm over the trend, others embraced the idea, provided the drugs are proven safe.

“In the United States, stimulant medications are widely abused,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, said in a telephone briefing.

Volkow said recent surveys on college campuses suggest drugs like Novartis’ Ritalin, or methylphenidate, and Cephalon’s Provigil, or modafinil, for narcolepsy are being used by students, professors and others as a way to get a competitive edge.

“They are abused for a variety of reasons including the fact that people want to get high, but there is the realization that they are being increasingly utilized to improve cognitive performance,” she said.

Volkow said annual reports from a narcotics control board at the United Nations noted a 300 percent increase in the production and supply of stimulants in the United States between 1995 and 2006.

“This not something that is going away,” Volkow said, adding that researchers must study the long-term effects these drugs might have in healthy people.

“It behooves us to try to answer the question,” she said.

Her concern follows a commentary in the journal Nature on Sunday that argues for use of the drugs in healthy adults as a legitimate way of improving brain power, much like education, the Internet or other helpful tools.

“We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function,” Henry Greely of Stanford Law School in California, Barbara Sahakian, a psychiatry professor from the University of Cambridge in Britain and others wrote.

They cited a recent survey that found nearly 7 percent of students in U.S. universities have used prescription stimulants, and on some campuses, as many as a quarter of students have used the drugs for non-therapeutic purposes.

The researchers called for doctors, educators, regulators and others to evaluate the risks and develop policies governing the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs.

Volkow said she and other experts would discuss the issue this week at meeting of American College of Neuropsychopharmacology in Nashville, Tennessee.

Editing by Maggie Fox