Off-label use of stimulants, such as Ritalin, is on the rise among college students. Studies show that 5 percent to 15 percent of students use prescription drugs as study aids, and surveys suggest the practice may be common among academics as well. The trend has sparked debates over how and when these cognitive enhancers should be used. Military personnel routinely use stimulants while on active duty, but should that practice also be permitted among surgeons working long shifts? What about scientists working late nights in the lab? Or students taking exams?
A commentary appearing today online in the journal Nature advocates for broad access to brain-boosting drugs. According to the piece, written by a group of ethicists, psychologists, and cognitive neuroscientists, "cognitive enhancement, unlike enhancement for sports competitions, could lead to substantive improvements in the world." While opponents have argued that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is unfair and could undermine the value of hard work, the authors say that these drugs fall into the same category as more common efforts to increase brain function, such as drinking a cup of coffee, or getting a good night's sleep, and thus should be regulated accordingly.
One of the biggest concerns associated with broad access to these drugs is that people will feel pressured to take them to get ahead, or just to keep up. An informal survey conducted by Nature last year of 1,400 people from 60 countries found that 20 percent of respondents engaged in off-label use of drugs to enhance concentration and memory. Ritalin was the most popular, followed by Adderall. Both are prescribed for ADHD. The survey confirmed the potential for peer pressure; while 85 percent of respondents said that the use of these drugs by children under the age of 16 should be restricted, a third said they would feel pressure to give them to their children if others were using them.
The authors of the commentary also note that if cognitive enhancers are to be used more broadly, more extensive study of the risks and benefits of the drugs is sorely needed. The side effects of long-term stimulant use, especially in children, are not yet known. And the potential for dependence and abuse has not been well documented.