Smart drugs, also known as neuroenhancers, could be the dirty little secret of some high-achieving students. Today, a group of doctors from the Yale School of Medicine and the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) published a position paper in AAN’s journal Neurology calling upon doctors who treat children and teenagers to stop prescribing the performance-enhancing drugs to underaged people. They said that the number of doctors writing these prescriptions is increasing even though the practice of giving drugs to healthy, normal children to enhance their mental performance has “ethical, social, legal, and developmental issues.”
They don’t quite spell it out, but we’ve all heard the whispers. College students and even younger children who don’t actually have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) fake the disorder so that they can get a prescription for so-called smart drugs like Ritalin, Adderall, or Provigil. In some healthy people, the neuroenhancers have a reputation for allowing you to stay awake longer, be a little sharper and more competitive, and even defeat jet lag. Students have reported that the drugs allow them to study much longer into the night.
One of the Yale doctors, William Graf said, “A physician should talk to the child about the request, as it may reflect other medical, social, or psychological motivations such as anxiety, depression, or insomnia.” True, but it might also reflect pushy parents or the child’s own desire to compete at a higher level.
A middle-aged executive once whispered the name of Provigil to me in the first class cabin of an airplane, assuring me that it was the cure for jet lag. An ABC report that called users “the secret society of the successful” said that sales of smart drugs in the US had soared to over $1.4 billion by 2011. You can’t blame a kid for feeling the pressure when even adults feel like everyone else is getting up earlier and working longer thanks to an artificial helper.
For the record, Provigil is FDA approved and marketed to treat sleep disorders in adults over the age of 18. Its website warns that it isn’t known if it’s safe for children 17 or under and that it’s illegal to give it to anyone it isn’t prescribed for.
There’s an ethical as well as a legal question. If the use of performance-enhancing drugs is considered cheating in sports, then could it also be considered cheating in school?
And what happens if “everyone” is doing it? The recent Lance Armstrong scandal exposed a sport where, to be competitive at the highest level, you had to get away with using drugs.
What’s next? Testing for smart drugs in the classroom?
[photo Fred Grinberg and Wikipedia Commons]