A big story broke this week with discussion of the ethical use of brain boosting drugs (known imposingly as “cognitive enhancement” drugs). The row was triggered by an editorial in the prestigious journal; Nature (Dec 11th 2008), calling for the freedom to take such substances.
Nature, a very “upmarket” science journal, had polled its readers and found 20% of top scientists already took cognitive enhancement substances. Studies have already suggested that between 5% and 15% of college students use brain-boosting drugs, mostly Ritalin or Adderall.
Banned street drugs, such as marijuana, ecstasy and LSD are also “cognitive enhancement” substances, remember. So the outcry is understandable. Even if the must-meddle-in-other-peoples-freedoms crowd had failed to notice and get involved, the how-do-we-know-its-safe group, which includes me, might want to express their concerns.
Then there is the issue of “Is it fair?” Are people who take drug enhancements not leap-frogging over everyone else? We ban sports performers from doing that because it’s considered not quite nice! What’s different about getting the edge intellectually and is that cheating?
Maybe the fact that we could all join in means it’s not quite cheating. But then many people may not want to take such substances (I have never taken a mind-enhancing drug in my life and have no intention of doing so, even to keep up with the herd); are we not being left at a disadvantage?
Ethics of mind boosting drugs
Let’s start with the ethical issue first.
Leon R. Kass, MD, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics is convinced it’s cheating. Not only that; it’s unnatural.
“One major trouble with biotechnical (especially mental) ‘improvers’ is that they produce changes in us by disrupting the normal character of human being-at-work-in-the-world … which, when fine and full, constitutes human flourishing,” Kass wrote in 2003. “With biotechnical interventions that skip the realm of intelligible meaning, we cannot really own the transformations nor experience them as genuinely ours.”
This loss, Kass insists, subtracts from our humanity.
But as this week’s Nature editorial argues, it’s not considered cheating to drink a double espresso or to hire a private tutor, so why disallow use of brain-boosting drugs? In the non-chemical domain, the use of laptops and calculators could also be regarded as biotechnical brain enhancement, I suppose. So when is unnatural OK and when is it naughty?
In cases where the drugs are merely used to temporarily boost exam performance, we would probably all agree that drug use would be unfair. But if the drugs boost one’s long-term learning, surely there is no problem with that?
My own position, for what it’s worth, is that I don’t quite see it as unfair cheating. By taking mind-boosting drugs an individual is not going to get more out of their mind/brain than is already in there. This isn’t like sports, where steroids will enable you to summon up performance that DID NOT exist before you “cheated”.
Safety of mind boosting drugs
Safety is a far more important concern in my view. We simply don’t know what the long-term effects of these chemical cocktails are. Ritalin, one of the most popular “brain boosters’ I have always regarded as the work of some scientific Satan. I don’t believe that Adderall and Provigil—also popular—have passed any meaningful safety milestones either.
Long-term studies have simply never been done.
The authors of the Nature editorial take a stand that calls for “a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs”. The free will and personal choice card didn’t trump the banning of LSD, cocaine and all the other mischief. It hardly seems likely to win this trick.
However, there are some big names put their monikers to this editorial:
Henry T. Greely, JD, professor of law at Stanford University; co-director of the Stanford program in genomics, ethics, and society; and co-director of the Stanford program in law, science, and technology.
Barbara Jacquelyn Sahakian, PhD, FMedSci, professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, England.
John Harris, DPhil, FmedSci, research director at the University of Manchester Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation, and research director at the University’s Center For Social Ethics And Policy In England.
Ronald C. Kessler, PhD, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
Michael Gazzaniga, PhD, professor of psychology and director for the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California Santa Barbara.
Martha J. Farah, PhD, professor of natural sciences and director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.
Philip Campbell, PhD, editor-in-chief of Nature.
I find it curious that none of these boffins are MDs. Is that just a coincidence? Or are doctors deliberately keeping out of it?
We shall see.
At least the editorial also calls for further research into the risks and benefits of using drugs in this way.
What are the possibilities?
Instead of agonizing about chemical cocktails, what can we do to help along our tired old brains? Our thought processes are certainly flying into a full-frontal hurricane these days, with so much sensory overstimulation that’s it’s hard to cope with even a hundredth of the input overload.
What should we do?
Well, get plenty of sleep. It’s the best brain booster I know. If you don’t sleep well, get off all the stimulants you are swallowing: coffee, tea, alcohol, sugar, aspartame and other “excitotoxins”.
Make sure you have adequate omega-3s, the brain’s number one nutrient repair supplement. 3 grams a day is good.
Gingko I believe is vastly over-rated.
Vinpocetine is vastly UNDER-rated. It is recognized in Europe, Japan, Korea, China, and elsewhere for its helpful characteristics. There is strong evidence that it can help improve cognition, enhance memory (long and short-term), enhance alertness and diminish senile cerebral dysfunction. It is particularly good after strokes and has a strong rehabilitating effect. It also improves hearing function, specifically preventing or relieving hearing loss due to various causes, relieving tinnitus (ringing/buzzing in the ears) and preventing or relieve vertigo (dizziness).
Take 40 mgms daily if you are of average build. 30 or even 20 mgms may be adequate for a small-built woman.
A great combination brain enhancer is alpha-lipoic acid (200 mgms) and acetyl-L-carnitine (500 gms). It preserves brain life and, for that matter, brings longevity too, in rats at least. I think it’s reasonable to extrapolate some of the anti-aging benefits to humans.
I LOVE MaxGXL and have written about it before. It’s the ideal formula and you can get it here: http://www.maxgxl.com/100882 (and yes, I do have a financial interest in that one).
Watch out for my own formulation, Brain-Zoom. It will hit the market soon.
Another red hot tip is Stemulite®. I take it. Go here:
All these are much safer than the crap that the FDA says is quite safe—but has never called for reliable testing.
Think of all the side effects and give them a pass.
The most common side effects reported in the Nature poll were headaches, jitteriness, anxiety, and sleeplessness. About half of those using these drugs reported these side effects, which could be serious enough to make people stop using the drugs.
Remember, Provigil for example has not been tested in people who drink alcohol. Patients with Provigil prescriptions are advised to avoid drinking alcohol; so we just don’t know.
I wouldn’t want a brain boosters that elbowed out a glass of chardonnay, one of my most creative cognitive enhancers.
[SOURCES: Greely, H. Nature, advance online publication, Dec. 7, 2008. Sahakian, B. and Morein-Zamir, S. Nature, Dec. 20/27, 2007; vol 450 pp 1157-1159. Kass, L. R. President’s Council on Bioethics, “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Human Improvement,” January 2003. British Medical Association, “Boosting Your Brainpower: Ethical Aspects of Cognitive Enhancements,” November 2007. Maher, B. Nature, April 2008; vol 452: pp 674-675.]