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Brain-Boosting Drugs FAQ: What You Must Know

7 Scientists Assert Brain-Boosting Drugs Are OK: Are They Wrong?

What is brain boosting?

Brain boosting -- or, as scientists like to say, cognitive enhancement -- means making your brain work better.

There are lots of ways to do this without taking drugs: by reading, for example, getting plenty of sleep, or learning something new, such as a new language.

There are also ways to do this with drugs such as caffeine or the prescription stimulants Ritalin, Adderall, and Provigil. Other drugs, such as beta-blockers (Inderal, for example) may also improve mental function.

There is no such thing as a drug benefit without a drug risk. Caffeine has side effects; so do its sister drugs behind the prescription counter.

The FDA has ruled that the benefits of these prescription drugs outweigh their risks for people suffering certain medical problems. For example, people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may get help from Ritalin or Adderall. People with daytime sleepiness due to sleep apnea may get help from Provigil.

These drugs also have effects on healthy people. They can increase attention span, boost memory, and focus thinking.

Use of these drugs without a prescription is illegal. In the U.S., unauthorized sale of these drugs is a felony.

Who uses brain-boosting drugs?

In 2007, Sahakian and colleague Sharon Morein-Zamir surveyed their Cambridge colleagues on the use of brain-boosting drugs. They found a surprising degree of acceptance of the practice, at least in principle.

This led Nature to poll its readers. The poll suggested that one in five Nature readers -- mostly scientists -- had used stimulant drugs for nonmedical reasons in order to stimulate their focus, concentration, or memory.

Studies suggest that between 5% and 15% of college students use brain-boosting drugs. Most use Ritalin or Adderall while Provigil use remains uncommon. The Nature poll also found that many people take beta-blockers, such as Inderal.

What are the side effects of brain-boosting drugs?

People who take brain-boosting drugs risk obvious problems if they overdose. Brain-boosting drugs also have important interactions with other drugs or substances a person may be using.

For example, Provigil has not been tested in people who drink alcohol. Patients with Provigil prescriptions are advised to avoid drinking alcohol.

The most common side effects reported in the Nature poll were headaches, jitteriness, anxiety, and sleeplessness. About half of those using these drugs reported these side effects, which were often serious enough to make people stop using the drugs.

But even the proponents of cognitive enhancement admit that too little is known about the long-term use of brain-boosting drugs in healthy people. The Nature editorialists call for more research.

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