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Pill wars: debate heats up over 'brain booster' drugs.

Adults are taking stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall, normally used to treat serious medical conditions, to boost their concentration and job performance. Critics ask: Is it making Americans too dependent on their medicine cabinets?

By / staff writer / May 15, 2009

By some estimates, at least 10 percent of college students in the US use prescription drugs as study aids. But should adults use these so-called 'brain boosters' for concentration?




It's a play right out of the Twitter era and the family medicine cabinet. "Distracted," at an off-Broadway theater in New York, examines the ever-shortening attention span of modern life – including the moral conundrum of whether a restive 9-year-old should be given pills to alter his mood.

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At one point, an actor breaks from character to address the audience directly and advocate the use of Ritalin and Adderall, two prescription stimulants, which, he says, helped him learn his lines. [Editor's note: The
original version wrongly called Ritalin and Adderall over-the-counter drugs.]

The aside encapsulates a growing debate in scientific circles and living rooms across America: Should adults be using so-called "brain-boosting" drugs – normally intended to treat serious medical conditions – to improve concentration and performance?

College students, of course, have been using stimulants for years: They take such things as modafinil, Adderall, and Ritalin (euphemistically known on campuses as "vitamin R") to enhance their memories for exams or to stay up all night and press out a term paper. By one estimate, at least 10 percent of American college students use prescription drugs as study aids.

Now the general adult population is turning to the pills, too – often illegally – to boost productivity and enhance their mental prowess on the job. Some experts laud the development: They think it's time to consider making the stimulants legal for brain-boosting functions.

But critics worry it will accelerate a slide toward a drugged society. In an era when people take everything from Viagra to enhance their romance to steroids to enhance their baseball statistics, they argue that the addition of so-called "cognitive enhancement" drugs will only make us more dependent on the pill bottle.

Ultimately, it raises the most fundamental questions about identity and what it means to be human: Are we the sum of our experiences or the sum of our pills? As Carl Elliott writes in his book, "Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream": "Today, enhancement technologies are not just instruments for self-improvement, or even self-transformation – they are tools for working on the soul."

LAST SUMMER, Michael Arrington, the founder of the influential technology blog TechCrunch, wrote a post asking, "How many Silicon Valley start-up executives are hopped up on Provigil?" He was referring to the stimulant, which is the brand name for modafinil, that doctors normally prescribe to treat excessive drowsiness associated with narcolepsy and other sleep disorders. "[T]he buzz lately is that it's the 'entrepreneur's drug of choice' around Silicon Valley," the post said.

In an online poll in the British science journal Nature last year, answered by 1,400 people in 60 countries, 1 in 5 said they had used drugs for nonmedical reasons "to stimulate their focus, concentration, or memory." Only about half had a prescription for the drug they were using. A third had bought the drugs over the Internet. And even though about half reported unpleasant side effects, 4 out of 5 "thought that healthy adults should be able to take the drugs if they want to," Nature reported.