'Smart Drug' side effects?

20 November 2012

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Question

Teo Gibson and Ryan Chown asked:

What effect do these cognitive enhancer drugs have on the teenage brains?”

Answer

We put this question to Barbara Sahakian, from the University of Cambridge...

Barbara -   Yes, well that’s an extremely important point because I'm very concerned about the use of these drugs in healthy children.

So for instance, if you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ADHD, it’s very important if you got severe ADHD that you get a treatment that’s effective like methylphenidate or Ritalin because if you don’t, it will impact on your ability to perform well at school and have a good normal education.  So, you do need a treatment in order to do well at school and to obviously also make friends behaviourally, and so forth.  So, it’s really important that if you’ve got severe ADHD, you get a treatment.

But then we have to ask, “Well, what are these effects when healthy people are taking these drugs on the developing brain?”

Really elegant work at the National Institute of Mental Health led by Jay Giedd and others - it shows that our brains are still in development well into late adolescence, early young adulthood, so even up to the age of 25 years.  So, we have to ask the question, what are the effects of these drugs on a healthy developing brain?  What is the influence?  Will we be tampering with something that’s already set to function really well and normally and will we have a disadvantage later on?

So, I think we really have to be concerned about young people who are healthy, taking these drugs.  And in particular, the frontal lobes are in development later on, and so, they're very important for our cognitive control and executive function, memory, various forms of working memory, and also for planning and executive functions such as problem solving.  So, we don’t want to tamper with something that’s already functioning quite well.

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