[IMGr=grey]http://www.timesonline.co.uk/multimedia/archive/00690/Aaronovitch_185x360_690551a.jpg[/IMGr]Scientists have urged the Government to bring the “closet phenomenon” of so-called smart drugs out into the open, suggesting that regulated use of the stimulants could help groups such as surgeons, soldiers, and jurors to maximise their benefit to society.
The calls coincide with a new study, headed by the former health minister and surgeon Lord Darzi of Denham, that will monitor the effects of “cognitive enhancement drugs” on the memory, concentration and decision-making skills of healthy adults.
There is little data on the long-term safety of the performance-enhancing effects of Ritalin and Modafinil, which are available only on prescription for those diagnosed with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or narcolepsy.
Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that the pills’ illicit promise of increased brain power and long bouts of uninterrupted concentration is attracting numbers of healthy high-fliers.
Barbara Sahakian, a neuroscientist from the University of Cambridge, is working with Lord Darzi’s team at Imperial College London.
Making the drugs available over the counter would be one way of prompting the clinical trials, which she believes are needed to explore just how far they can improve the human mind.
Until then, Professor Sahakian warns that ambitious executives, multitasking mothers and students under pressure will continue to take risks with drugs procured over the internet, or other people’s prescriptions, while the rest of society risks losing out. “This is a closet phenomenon,” she told The Times. “We know that people are doing these drugs anyway but we don’t know about their long-term safety. The Government has a responsibility to think about what they should do about that. Maybe they should be letting pharmaceutical companies brand these medications via a safe route. Wouldn’t that be better?”
Government health statistics for England show that the number of prescriptions for stimulants such as Ritalin and Modafinil has nearly doubled in recent years — rising from 458,000 in 2004 to 751,000 in 2008.
“I’m rather careful about my brain,” said Dr Anders Sandberg, 37, as one might well expect from a philosophy lecturer who specialises in bioethics at the University of Oxford.
He first took Modafinil three years ago, after consulting a pharmacologist friend, and procuring about thirty 50mg doses from a website. He now takes it on average once a month — “not chronically, but only on days when I decide, ‘OK, I need to get something done’.” Days when he has conferences, seminars, papers to write.
He also wants to remove the stigma attached to those who seek artificial improvement for their attention span.
“When the cellphone first arrived, we weren’t sure when to use it. But we learnt to invent rules, so that it’s generally not OK to use them in restaurants but it’s OK walking outside. We need to achieve the same with enhancement drugs. We need the right culture surrounding it. And the only way we can do that is by being honest about its consumption, and face up to the fact it is going on.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said a report had been commissioned in 2008 investigating the issue of cognitive-enhancing drugs.She said: “We strongly urge anyone thinking about taking a prescription-only medicine, not intended for their personal use, to consult their GP first.”
From The Times
February 27, 2010
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