Smart Drugs, anyone?

Students taking smart pills to try to improve their school grades. What will be the long terms consequences?
17 November 2014

Interview with 

Professor Stephen Hauser, Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, Professor Walter Koroshetz, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Professor Henry Markram, the Human Brain Project.


Students taking smart pills to try to improve their school grades. Are they dangerous? What will be the long term consequences? We discuss the issues. And we ask how can scientists help discuss the implications of their results with the public, and the policy makers. 

Hannah - Another issue that was raised at the meeting was smart drugs or cognitive enhancers. Traditionally used on prescription to help those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD would focus an attention or to help boost memory for those with dementia. These drugs are now also being bought off-label over the internet by students hoping to achieve a higher grade in their exams. One in ten students at Cambridge University, for example, admit to taking them. Scientists have no idea what the long-term effects these drugs might be on the healthy adolescent brain. We discuss the issue surrounding smart drugs, starting with Henry.

Henry - You know, I think what we've done to appreciate about the brain is that it's not like the heart or the liver, or the kidney. It is an organ on a trajectory. It's like a rocket that's moving through life and actually anything deflects a rocket's direction. If you don't understand that then you don't feel immediately where your brain is going to go because you're taking some kind of drug but you could actually end up in a completely different trajectory, and I think that it is really important that we understand the tampering with the brain to change its direction could have very deep consequences.

Hannah - Stephen?

Stephen - Doctor Markram's point is extremely important. We need to recognize that all of the technologies and even traditional drugs that we are speaking about today are likely interim products that will be replaced by more selective and perhaps less invasive approaches. And that a key ethical need is to be to identify these long-term benefits and risks because we are living for many decades hopefully, particularly when we consider administering these therapies to a youngster. This is another great opportunity of these two initiatives to begin to have the capability to pool health outcomes related data across many individual databases to connect interventions with long-term outcomes in ways that we never could have before.

Hannah - Walter.

Walter - Just to add, the issue of the education of the populace is just so important because I mean I think already we've seen groups that can try and take advantage of a message that is not mature and yet recruit large numbers of people to join their efforts with the promise that they can enhance brain function. And it's something that I think the populace might grab on to unless they are educated about risk-benefits and not being duped in many instances, and now it's so important to get this discussion going now when Doctor Markram's iPhone comes out and people are wearing them constantly to inform my interaction with other human beings for instance or to inform my brain about exactly how I should be feeling or behaving at this point in time. Those tools that are coming, if discussion is not held five to ten years beforehand then it will be a lot of confusion, potentially a lot of backlash even when they do come into play.

Hannah - And finally Stephen, so the issue of education. Are you recommending to the president that there's a flurry of scientists that go into schools to talk about issues of the brain and how we understand the brain. How are we addressing this issue with the public?

Stephen - This is a multi-faceted strategy. It needs to be and certainly in the United States public education remains a huge problem. So it certainly includes asking scientists to come and speak to different groups of public stakeholders from young school to people living in assisted care facilities, but an equally part of that is that scientists learn how to communicate a message effectively simply and clearly. We are going to propose to the president, numerous ways to improve public discourse around science and neuroscience in particular and as doctor Koroshetz stated so clearly, also to advice on ways to deal with the baloney in the media and there ways to have a fact check to mobile technology in order to provide access for all of us into the most reliable interpretations of neuroscience discovery.

Walter - I think the media is potentially one of the biggest dangers in this whole thing because they do tend to propagate a lot of the baloney, and it is important to separate that out. In the European human brain project, one of the things we're doing is to actually work with science museums. There are about three thousand science museums around the world and we're working with them to how we can establish a permanent area in all science museums around the world. And were already discussing with the US brain initiative how we can all work together in all different initiatives in different countries to use this format to try to get people to get the information about how the brain works, about diseases so we can demystify some of the brain diseases, about the kind of technologies that are out there and to get it into a format where they can probably engage with it and actually get a deeper understanding.

Hannah - Stephen?

Stephen - And maybe one additional area is the importance for those of us in the neuroscience community to communicate effectively and clearly with policy makers. In the past, there has sometimes been the promise or the hype even within the neuroscience community. The optimism, the deliverables that maybe were not achieved might be achievable for initiatives that would then be supported by the government. And it's very important that neuro scientists modulate down the hype along with the rest of us.

Hannah - Well, that's all we have time for in this special episode of Naked Neuroscience. Reporting for the International Neuroethics 2014 meeting and hosted at the AAAS or the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC. Thanks to all those who took part - Congressman Chaka Fattah, Henry Markrams, Stephen Hauser, and Walt Koroshetz. In the next episode, we'll be hearing from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. They're funding brain research and we'll be asking should robots replace humans in the frontline for warfare? Should governments wipe their secret service agents memories clean after they've completed their missions? And should we implant positive memories into veterans who return from combat? Join us again for this special Naked Neuroscience series to open your mind.


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