Should people have the right to boost their brains with brain drugs like those prescribed for hyperactive kids or memory-impaired older folks? Several scientists seem to think so according to a commentary published recently in the journal Nature. “We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function,” Barbara Sahakian, a psychiatry professor from the University of Cambridge in Britain, and others wrote, contending that boosting the brain with pharmaceuticals is no more morally objectionable than eating right or getting a good night’s sleep.
Among several questionable justifications for taking brain drugs was this gem: since college students are already illegally taking prescription stimulants like Ritalin to help them study, demand for such drugs is likely to grow elsewhere. (One can only wonder if demand for drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines grew among college students, would that justify recommending those drugs as well?)
Many of the other justifications the scientists used for their opinion appear to be more in line with marketing sound bites than sound reasoning:
Commentary author Martha Farah, brain scientist and faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania, said that as more effective brain-boosting drugs are developed, demand for them is likely to grow among middle-aged people who want youthful memory powers, and among multitasking workers who need to keep track of multiple demands.
“Almost everybody is going to want to use it,” Farah gushed.
“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.
Less Than Universal Acceptance
Although the mainstream media was quick to parrot the “good news” and some health experts agreed that the issue deserves attention, initial reactions to the commentary were far less universally positive.
Leigh Turner of the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics said, “It`s a nice puff piece for selling medications for people who don’t have an illness of any kind.”
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said she agreed with the commentary that the non-prescribed use of brain-boosting drugs must be studied, but she also noted her concern 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 added.
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 brain drugs, the kind of thing parents feel when neighbor kids sign up for SAT prep courses, according to Parens.
Given that the nation has decided to provide 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 questions about promoting societal inequalities.