Study Drugs and Neural Enhancers: Science and Controversy

Adderall is a mixture of dextroamphetamine and amphetamine and is prescribed to children and adults with ADHD. Photo courtesy of

Imagine a world in which you could increase your IQ by taking a pill. With the help of neuroenhancing drugs, such a world may already exist on college campuses across the country. According to a 2005 study published in the journal Addiction, seven percent of college students have admitted to using some kind of neuroenhancing drug for non-medical uses. Although taking drugs without a prescription is illegal, not all scientists agree that consuming neuroenhancing drugs may be a bad thing. Are drugs like Ritalin and Adderall a glimpse into a smarter future, or are we toying with health risks we do not yet fully understand?

The two favorite neuroenhancing drugs used on college campuses are methylphenidate and amphetamine salts— or, as we more commonly refer to them, Ritalin and Adderall. These drugs are typically prescribed to assist children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As for the efficacy of these drugs in adults without ADHD, Hedy Kober, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Yale University states, “we have scientifically a lot of reason to believe that these drugs can in fact enhance the performance of healthy adults as measured by, for example, reaction time, focus, and some forms of memory.” Kober explains that by blocking or otherwise altering the function of the transporters in the synapse that reuptake the neurotransmitter monoamines, Ritalin and Adderall increase monoamines levels, especially dopamine, in synapses. The resulting high levels of dopamine are able to enhance signals between the hippocampus, which is involved in memory, and the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making. These enhanced signals are thought to be responsible for the increase in cognitive abilities and working memory upon taking these drugs.

Although she acknowledges the value of neuroenhancing drugs, Kober cautions students about taking drugs that are not prescribed to them. “There is always a concern of drug interaction when you don’t know what you are taking and you haven’t consulted a doctor about issues like dose and other existing medical conditions,” she warns. Furthermore, she explains that both Adderall and Ritalin are schedule II drugs, meaning that they have an “abuse potential” and can lead to dependence and withdrawal. Though this may seem like an obvious caveat, many students nonetheless fail to understand these risks. A survey conducted at the University of Kentucky shows that many students underestimate the dangers of Adderall and Ritalin, even ranking them as less dangerous than beer and cigarettes.

Ritalins block dopamine reuptake in the same way that cocaine does. Courtesy of canadian-seeker.comdangers.

Despite the potential health risks of such drugs, not all scientists are on the same side of the argument. A recently published article in Nature extols the benefits of neuroenhancing drugs. Contending that humans should be able to use drugs to improve brain function in the same way that they use food, sleep, and exercise to improve brain function, these scientists and ethicists argue that as long as such drugs are proven to be safe, they should be embraced and not stigmatized. They also reject the notion that humans should not use mind-enhancing drugs because they are “unnatural,” stating that much of our lives today are already unnatural. Furthermore, the article urges scientists to start researching the benefits and risks of using these drugs on healthy adults and the government to alter laws surrounding drugs so that those attempting to enhance their cognitive abilities will not be punished.

Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has called the article “irresponsible” and states that she strongly disagrees with its authors. She adds that Adderall and Ritalin are stimulants that can lead to severe addiction and psychosis. Furthermore, Volkow argues, because there have been no long-term studies on the effects of these drugs on young brains, these drugs could result in long-term, adverse side effects.

On the other hand, Dr. Kober agrees with many of the claims made in the Nature article. “In a world where healthy people could get these drugs through a prescription,” she states, “this kind of drug use could be very helpful and practical.” She lists some studies that show that regular smokers perform better cognitively when they are given nicotine. “We all intake things like food, sugar, and caffeine in order to alter our current state and enhance performance,” Kober argues. As long as neuroenhancing drugs are safe and legal, she contends that people should be allowed to use them.

As Adderall and Ritalin consumption among college students remains prevalent, the fierce debate about the efficacy and safety of these neuroenhancing drugs will continue. The future implications of such a trend are much bigger than simply earning an “A” on an exam, though: although many health risks need to be evaluated, the use of cognitive enhancing drugs may not only improve the performance of college students but also increase the cognitive abilities of humanity as a whole.