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

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Philip Harvey is one who uses them. A professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta, he regularly flies from Georgia to Europe on business. To prepare for his flight, he takes modafinil. He uses the stimulant to feel alert and rested, despite lost sleep, allowing him to return to his family faster. He has no trouble getting a prescription from his doctor. "From Atlanta, I can get to Europe by 6 a.m. and give a 9 a.m. presentation," he says. "It lets you go and come back the same day, or go over one day and come back the next."

In the current debate over brain boosters, the focal point of much of the discussion has been a commentary in the December issue of Nature. Seven prominent bioethicists noted that the drugs "are 'disruptive technologies' that could have a profound effect on human life in the twenty-first century." While calling for more research to better understand the safety and effectiveness of use in healthy individuals, the piece went on to advocate that "mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs."

In the months since, the paper has met with both hearty approval and deep reservations from scientists and other bioethicists. "Anything that can help our brains deal better with the complex challenges of the twenty-first century is to be not only welcomed but actively sought," wrote Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, in a letter to the journal.

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