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Professionals Use Drugs to Sharpen Their Minds, Survey Finds

Ritalin, Provigil, beta blockers used to boost focus, concentration, science journal reports

WEDNESDAY, April 9 (HealthDay News) -- One in five respondents to a scientific journal survey acknowledges using so-called "cognition-enhancing drugs" -- such as ADHD and heart medications -- to sharpen their focus, concentration or memory.

The most popular drug was Ritalin (methylphenidate), which is prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but has emerged in recent years as a campus "study aid." Coming in second was the stimulant Provigil (modafinil), followed by blood-pressure drugs called beta blockers, which can also help to reduce anxiety.

The online survey was open to subscribers of Nature -- who tend to be researchers and scientists -- and the results are published in the journal's April 10 issue. The survey found that people of all ages are using these drugs for cognitive enhancement.

"That people of all ages are taking the stimulant medications was somewhat of a surprise. We didn't expect the number to be so high," said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Eighteen- to 25-year-olds are where you have the highest rates of substance abuse, including prescription medications."

Volkow was also surprised that the use of cognitive enhancers was so high among Nature subscribers.

"These are individuals that are actively participating in science or have a very active interest in science," she said. "These people are more educated about the potential negative consequences of taking a stimulant medication. That's why it's so strikingly surprising. This highlights how prevalent the use of these medications is as potential cognitive enhancers."

According to the survey results, Ritalin was the most popular drug, with 62 percent of respondents reporting having taken it. Forty-four percent of the respondents -- more than 1,400 people from 60 countries -- said they'd taken Provigil, while 15 percent said they'd taken beta blockers such as propanolol.

Other popular drugs of choice included adderall, an amphetamine similar to Ritalin; centrophenoxine, which is used to treat dementia; and dexedrine, an amphetamine. Supplements such as ginkgo and omega-3 fatty acids were also commonly used, according to the poll.

One third of those using drugs for non-medical purposes said they'd bought them over the Internet. Others got them from pharmacies or with a prescription, according to the survey

The most common reason given for taking any of these drugs was to boost concentration. Combating jet lag was another frequent reason cited by the respondents.

Eighty-six percent of the respondents said they thought children under 16 years of age should be prevented from using these drugs. But one third said they'd feel pressured to give the drugs to their children if other kids at school were using them.

Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, predicted that the use of these drugs and other "neuro-enhancing" products and procedures will continue to grow in popularity as they become available, he said in the Nature report. One reason that use of these drugs is on the rise is that they don't rely on training of medical specialists, he noted.

About 50 percent of those taking these drugs reported unpleasant side effects, including headaches, jitteriness, anxiety and sleeplessness. These side effects made some people stop using the drugs.

Volkow said people take these drugs because they believe they're going to improve their cognitive ability. "But there really is no evidence to show that," she said. "In addition, there is no study that has been done that looks at long-term outcomes for taking these drugs."

She's also concerned that people may become addicted to the drugs.

"They take the medication to improve their performance, and they love the way it makes them feel," Volkow said. "There is a greater risk of eventually becoming dependent on these stimulant medications. These medications can produce dependence, like methamphetamine and cocaine," she said.

More information

To learn more about so-called "smart drugs," visit the University of Washington.

SOURCE: Nora Volkow, M.D., director, the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, Bethesda, Md.; Nature, April 10, 2008

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