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Biotech Medicine

Cosmetic Neurology 369

The New Yorker has a long piece examining the growing trend of healthy people, not diagnosed with any mental condition, taking drugs that enhance mental functioning, including Adderall and Provigil. The profiles include a Harvard student, a professional poker player, a number of brain researchers, and a self-described transhumanist. "Zack [Lynch]... has a book being published this summer, called 'The Neuro Revolution'... In coming years, he said, scientists will understand the brain better, and we'll have improved neuroenhancers that some people will use therapeutically, others because they are 'on the borderline of needing them therapeutically,' and others purely 'for competitive advantage.' ... Even if today's smart drugs aren't as powerful as such drugs may someday be, there are plenty of questions that need to be asked about them. How much do they actually help? Are they potentially harmful or addictive? Then, there's the question of what we mean by 'smarter.' Could enhancing one kind of thinking exact a toll on others? All these questions need proper scientific answers, but for now much of the discussion is taking place furtively, among the increasing number of Americans who are performing daily experiments on their own brains. ... [A cognitive researcher said,] 'Cognitive psychologists have found that there is a trade-off between attentional focus and creativity. And there is some evidence that suggests that individuals who are better able to focus on one thing and filter out distractions tend to be less creative. ... I'm a little concerned that we could be raising a generation of very focused accountants.'"
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Cosmetic Neurology

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  • For years... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Shikaku ( 1129753 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @05:13PM (#27723737)

    Everyone has been taking caffeine. So what else is new?

  • by openfrog ( 897716 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @05:42PM (#27723955)

    There have been a few pieces of that kind in recent months, among those one in The Economist. They all follow the very same scenario and use the same rhetoric. Comments from readers testified of few benefits (confusion and excitation rather than concentration) and dramatic, often tragic side effects, with dependency consequences, etc. Each time the piece resurfaces, none of the downsides are mentioned and the same rhetoric: benign use, everybody uses it, unquestioned efficiency is brought back. Deregulating the sale of those drugs seems to be a coveted objective of Big Pharma and no wonder, considering the fabulous sums involved. Soma anyone?

  • Re:Used in college (Score:5, Insightful)

    by techno-vampire ( 666512 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @05:44PM (#27723967) Homepage
    Those people all ended up with better GPA's for it.

    And how much did they retain a month later, would you think, compared with those who didn't? That's the real point of getting an education, you know, not just grades.

  • Re:For years... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rootofevil ( 188401 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @05:49PM (#27723979) Homepage Journal

    not to mention 'creativity enhancers' like acid, pot, shrooms, etc.

    it all depends what you want to optimize for.

  • by Virak ( 897071 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @05:56PM (#27724043) Homepage

    It's like saying driving a car instead of walking is "cosmetic transportation". Something whose main purpose is to provide functionality is pretty much the exact opposite of "cosmetic".

  • Re:Used in college (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 26, 2009 @05:58PM (#27724065)
    I see what you're getting at; you don't want to admit that there is actually a lasting advantage to using a drug to help learn. Your sense of right and wrong desperately wants any benefits to be temporary and even better, have some sort of horrible side effect down the road. I don't think the answer to your question is relevant because whether it's happened or not eventually there will be drugs that enhance intelligence/learning with no significant side effects.
  • Re:For years... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @06:03PM (#27724111) Homepage
    The idea of healthy people taking modern pharmaceuticals to enhance their thinking dates back at least to LSD in the 1960s.
  • Re:well (Score:2, Insightful)

    by darealpat ( 826858 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @06:12PM (#27724175) Journal

    Depends what kind of team setting you are talking about. If you are talking about team sports, IMHO a lessening of creativity will make a team less likely to succeed. Communication of ideas tend to be burst/spontaneous and situation oriented especially when presented with a shifting/changing situation (opposing team changing defense or offense) and being more focused will not necessarily help that: the focus may only be on the route to be run and its expected variations, and therefore may not be aware of the opponent just ever so slightly tipping their hand at a novel approach.

    Then might help the superior performer go through various permutations of the situation quicker. Imagine a more "focused" Michael Jordan in his hey-day (yipes! Cavs fans) or Ronaldo (from Manchester united, if u don't know who he is, replace with Tom Brady).

    Could be something to it...and then there will be one more thing to ban.

  • by Pedrito ( 94783 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @06:14PM (#27724187)

    I don't really see anything wrong with this, as long as the drugs aren't over-used to the point where health is compromised.

    I took Ritalin for a while. It was effective for a number of months and really helped me to focus, but it did cost me a great deal in terms of creativity, which is something I depend on more than I realized before taking Ritalin.

    Eventually the Ritalin stopped working and my choice was between raising the dose (and probably having to boost my blood pressure meds concurrently), or quit. I chose to quit since I was missing my creativity.

    While I understand the concern of doctors from the "if it ain't broke" camp, most doctor are happy enough to start throwing Paxil, Prozac and other SSRIs at people at the first hint of anxiety or depression, without even a hint of trying to address the real problem (whatever is causing the anxiety or depression). Why should they be so skittish about giving drugs to make people focus better and otherwise improve the quality of their lives?

  • Reinvented wheel (Score:3, Insightful)

    by anonum ( 1057442 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @06:15PM (#27724191)

    AFAIK amphetamines were popular already in WW2 among soldiers being able to stay sharp extended periods (weeks or so), in 1960's truck drivers and students did it for the same purpose. This is really nothing new, just amphetamines renamed. The extremely addictive nature of amphetamines will create once again another generation of drug addicts from unsuspecting students who fall for the hype.

  • Re:Used in college (Score:3, Insightful)

    by techno-vampire ( 666512 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @06:18PM (#27724217) Homepage
    I don't so much expect a difference as wonder if there is one. It occurred to me that the enhancers might have had an effect on the user's ability to shift things from short-term memory to long. Also, there's the possibility of state-dependent learning involved, so I asked.
  • by blahplusplus ( 757119 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @06:21PM (#27724241)

    "While I am not against the use of such drugs because of safety reasons per se, to me, it feels like we're cheating evolution. Perhaps evolution could come up with many of these modifications (intelligence/less drowsiness) naturally."

    Sigh... why do people keep thinking that things are "unnatural" technically everything we do is NATURAL by definition, value judgements that x is good and y is bad because it is not 'natural' is cultural thing not ab objective truth.

    If we were really so concerned about "cheating evolution" we would not save the sick, we would not have hospitals that keep people who are "wasting resources" on life support for x many years, we would let diseases run their course and not have anti-biotics or drugs, only our natural immune systems to deal with sickness.

    The whole idea that we are "cheating evolution" or doming something "unnatural" is bogus, psychologically generated bullshit that we inherit from the culture and our proclivities.

    IS playing video games natural?? or inventing computers? What about programming? What about making machines that do work for you so you no longer have to work at hard labour which kept your muscles in shape?

    This whole obsession with an unreal version of nature that never was in our cultural mythos is the culprit.

  • by rickyb ( 898092 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @06:26PM (#27724297)
    What hasn't yet been brought up in this discussion is the fact that these are all controlled substances, meaning that they are not just prescription drugs, but that their use and prescription by a physician is closely monitored to ensure they they are only given for FDA-approved uses. In fact, Adderall is a Schedule II controlled substance, which puts in in the same category as Opium, Morphine, Percocet, Hydrocodone, etc. Whatever your position on using these substances is, all of the above uses are not FDA approved and if a physician is caught prescribing these medications for these uses, he/she would have his/her medical license revoked.

    The above summary makes it sound as if anyone can go to their physician and ask for Adderall or Provigil to enhance their study routine. As a physician myself, this is simply not the case.
  • by bnenning ( 58349 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @06:38PM (#27724399)

    it feels like we're cheating evolution

    Yes, and that's a good thing. Unless you want nearsighted people to be eaten by bears.

    Perhaps evolution could come up with many of these modifications (intelligence/less drowsiness) naturally.

    Quite possibly, but I'd rather have them in 20 years instead of 200 million.

  • Re:For years... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Narpak ( 961733 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @06:38PM (#27724411)

    If a nootropic came to exist that made you a whole bunch smarter, and a whole bunch less creative with no other obvious side effects - I think you can kiss creativity goodbye.

    "Smarter" is a fairly vague term. Smarter how? Some activities (work related or not) require creativity for you to be effective. Not counting the obvious ones (like design, music, painting, architecture etc) I would say that a scientist or detective without creativity could be hyper intelligent and still not be able to produce a usable result; depending of course on what the desired result is. One could argue that making certain connections requires creativity.

    That being said I find this area of research to be fascinating; even if it does at times make me a just a bit apprehensive.

  • Re:Used in college (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rastilin ( 752802 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @06:55PM (#27724547)

    How is this not a form of cheating?

    Because they did the work...

    Similar to using caffeine to stay up through the night before the exam. What matters is how much work you do, not how you do it.

  • Re:Used in college (Score:5, Insightful)

    by moteyalpha ( 1228680 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @06:56PM (#27724549) Homepage Journal
    Mind and body and personality. I can over clock my CPU until it melts and it gets faster and faster until it dies. In the 60's it was a common expression to hear, "Speed Kills" and it was very true, as I witnessed the slow/fast decay of numerous people, not just from Amphetamines, but LSD-25, Heroine, Cocaine and things that are not even around anymore.
    The few that lived after sniffing Chloro-Fluoro-Carbons or OD ing, I see trying to make change at the local ice cream store or equivalent.
    To some extent they all eat away at the body and mind. It is a strange road to take and the end of that road is as often creativity or some other advantage, followed by the opposite *10.
  • Re:I call BS (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Obyron ( 615547 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @07:08PM (#27724635)

    When you're using a prescription drug without a prescription, that's drug abuse. When you're using a drug in a way its not intended to be used, that's drug abuse.
    Let's not kid ourselves with name games here.

    When you're using a drug in a way it's not intended, that's off-label use. When you're using a drug with a prescription, that's prescribed use. When you're using a drug without a prescription, that's illicit use. It is possible to abuse a drug even with a prescription, and it is possible to use a drug responsibly without one. I have, for example, used benzodiazepines for which I have no prescription to control anxiety. With no health insurance it's easily possible for buying the medicine on the street to be more cost effective than paying for a doctor's appointment, scheduling time off from work to go to the appointment (for which you won't be paid), and then paying outlandish prices for prescriptions, depending on the medication the doctor agrees to give you. And that's not to mention subjecting a person with anxiety to the harrowing process that is convincing your doctor that you need a controlled medication. I now have a prescription for anxiety, but I battled it in my own way for years because the thought of going to a doctor and being subjected to their suspicion was enough to put me into a panic attack. I realize that's irrational, but that's anxiety.

    I'm glad your Adderall works for you, but I'm sorry that you can't accept that there are other people who can also benefit from the medication who, for one reason or another, do not have or want a prescription. It's not like ADD isn't real until a doctor tells you it is. It's worth remembering that drug regulation laws were not enacted because people were abusing drugs, but rather because drug companies were putting out tainted shit that killed people.

  • Re:For years... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @07:08PM (#27724637) Homepage
    Um... "a whole bunch smarter, and a whole bunch less creative" is damn near a contradiction in terms. Granted, there are all kinds of "smart", but some form of creativity (whether analytic or intuitive) is involved in most of them.
  • Re:Used in college (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ChrisMaple ( 607946 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @07:16PM (#27724675)

    When on Adderall knowledge retention becomes increased ten fold...

    The effect on a person who normally has retention above 10% must be startling.
    Someone who can recite any line from a book is more likely to be an idiot savant than a genius.

  • by ruinevil ( 852677 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @07:38PM (#27724753)
    Most users including myself have screens that are at least 1280 pixels wide. Even you netbook users have 600 pixels. The New Yorker's website only use like 400 pixels, and leaves the rest to white space. THEY DON'T EVEN USE THE SPACE FOR ADS.
  • by bitt3n ( 941736 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @08:33PM (#27725105)

    I'm a little concerned that we could be raising a generation of very focused accountants.

    perhaps preferable to a generation of very creative accountants.

  • There are tens of thousands of people in mental hospitals because of the permanent psychological damage [LSD] can cause in certain individuals, most notably those who already walk the fine line between creative genius and insanity.

    Please supply any reference to substantiate this claim.

  • Psych (Score:3, Insightful)

    by meehawl ( 73285 ) <meehawl.spam@gm a i l .com> on Sunday April 26, 2009 @09:35PM (#27725463) Homepage Journal

    As a matter of fact, yes. How about you?

  • by Manchot ( 847225 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @10:30PM (#27725779)

    In the march to the Singularity, we don't need history majors writing papers or Baseball players hitting homeruns. We need science. A neuroscientist taking a cognitive-enhancing drug is a direct example of recursive, exponential growth to the Singularity. Keep it coming.

    Personally, I think we'd be better off if amateur futurists (read: all futurists) understood that extrapolating exponential growth far into the future is idiotic. Not that I disagree with your premise that science is important.

  • Re:Used in college (Score:3, Insightful)

    by nxtw ( 866177 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @10:36PM (#27725807)

    Mind and body and personality. I can over clock my CPU until it melts and it gets faster and faster until it dies. In the 60's it was a common expression to hear, "Speed Kills" and it was very true, as I witnessed the slow/fast decay of numerous people, not just from Amphetamines, but LSD-25, Heroine, Cocaine and things that are not even around anymore.

    And eating too much kills. Drinking too much alcohol kills. Products tainted with poisonous substances kill.

    Mass manufactured, consistently dosed products are significantly safer when used properly and with awareness of any common side effects and how to deal with them.

  • Re:For years... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by scum-e-bag ( 211846 ) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @11:29PM (#27726063) Homepage Journal

    It's called beer. When you drink enough of it, even the most unattractive members of the opposite sex begin to look good.

  • by Geekbot ( 641878 ) on Monday April 27, 2009 @03:08AM (#27727089)

    I feel more like this is society cheating humanity.

    I don't know where the line falls, but there is a line where what we do is productive and healthy. On the other side of that line we may be productive, but we are not healthy. I don't believe that a society with so many people out of work is really in need of a work force that pops pills to be more productive.

    Humanity is plenty productive already and needs more downtime to devote to the arts, culture, civil liberties, families, and other outlets that enrich our lives and those of future generations.

    It's unfortunate that I'm sitting here at 3:00 AM wishing I had those drugs so I could get focused on my report I need to finish. Because the real answer is that instead of wishing I had drugs to complete one of the 5 jobs I work for one paycheck I should be wishing that my employer hired 4 other people so that the jobs got done right and we didn't have 4 people on unemployment.

    So I don't feel like these drugs cheat evolution. Mankind doesn't need to evolve to become more productive. Instead society needs to evolve to allow for our already incredible levels of productivity.

  • by rickyb ( 898092 ) on Monday April 27, 2009 @08:11AM (#27728383)
    This is simply not known. The safety of drugs cannot be known until a huge number of people have used the drug for a long time. Caffeine has been in use for hundreds (if not thousands) of years by literally billions of people. We know that it is pretty safe.

    Modafinil (Provigil), on the other hand, has only been around for about a decade and has had limited use. We already know about some serious side-effects of Provigil that aren't associated with caffeine (see the Wikipedia article here: []). In addition, many drugs are often found to have more serious and deadly side-effects in small numbers that are only discovered after the drug has been in use for a long time (e.g. Vioxx). In addition, Modafinil is a Schedule IV drug, but caffeine is not a controlled substance at all. There is absolutely no data of which I know that indicates Modafinil is safer than caffeine. Please share if you have such data.
  • Re:For years... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by theKiyote ( 542132 ) on Monday April 27, 2009 @10:01AM (#27729335)

    Pot has roughly the same effect as vallium on some, which allows them to get past their own anxiety to accomplish a task better like public speaking. It does nothing to make them more creative, just lets them use their existing talents better.

    But, in this particular example, if a person performs the task more because they have less anxiety, they develop a higher level of ability, just through extended practice.

    And as far as the hallucinogenics go, you can't actually perform more efficiently on them, but sometimes it's possible to get a flash of insight that you can apply when you come off of them.

  • Re:For years... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Ifandbut ( 1328775 ) on Monday April 27, 2009 @10:03AM (#27729361)

    Mod parent up but [Citation Needed]. I have felt more creative when I get high but I lack the focus to bring those creative ideas to fruition. If I could take a small dose of psychoactive substance then later take a dose of Ritalin to focus enough to get those ideas on paper then I would be able to actually produce something.

  • Re:For years... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 27, 2009 @10:03AM (#27729367)

    My drug days are long over, but acid, pot and shrooms definitely enhanced my creativity in both the short and long term. One may likely become less productive, it is true, particularly if one "takes up residence" in the drug demi-monde, but that is orthogonal to the creativity (the unexpected insights, the discovery of unusual connections and contradictions, the formal innovations) that people with drug-experiences have produced.

    These drugs, especially acid, can make your thinking much less banal.

  • by Attila Dimedici ( 1036002 ) on Monday April 27, 2009 @10:39AM (#27729875)
    Seriously, when steroids were discovered, people were saying that in the future athletes and others who needed a boost to physical prowess would take steroids. It turns out that the side effects of steroids are serious enough that in the long term the boost to downside is greater than the temporary boost unless one has a diagnosed physical ailment (even with the improvements to reduce side effects).
    As to drugs which improve mental performance, people have been trying from time immemorial to find such, look up Freud and cocaine.
  • Re:For years... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by vlm ( 69642 ) on Monday April 27, 2009 @12:49PM (#27732169)

    I have a chemistry background, find this area of chemistry interesting due to the challenges those chemists go thru, but have no personal involvement in the drug trade in any form. Sort of like the appeal of the "dirty jobs" show on TV, a bad day for me at the lab was contamination ruining ore sample results, or jamming a NMR tube in the NMR machine, valve falls out of the buret during a titration, spectrophotometer bulb blows at just the wrong time, solvent extraction and poured out the wrong stuff, etc. But it was always consoling to realize for a completly different type of "chemist", a bad day for them was blowing up their house, dea raids, shot by competitors, etc. So, a very bad day in a perfectly legal lab, wasn't so bad after all... Anyway:

    Making LSD is said to be easy.

    Utter BS. The active dose is incredibly small. You need facilties similar to nerve gas production in order to make it without tripping. A fume hood and gloves is not going to cut it. Also the intermediates and precursors, although somewhat less active than the product, are very toxic, making refining a serious issue for the end users, and production dangerous. Usually "homemade LSD" is some utterly different substance that happens to result in hallucination, essentially using "LSD" as a marketing brand name for cactus extracts, animal tranquilizers, "mushroom soup", etc.

    Opium is probably as easy as Marijuana to conceal, except it requires a bit more manual work.

    Do ya think? Each seed has to be individually manually bled like maple syrup and then gather the sap. Just like coke, you need a large peasant class to make enough to entertain a small relatively rich user class. I suppose you could view it like gardening, and slave away like a peasant for an entire summer, for one brief high... or maybe not worth it.

    In theory, making heroine from opium is also a feasible amateur chemistry operation.

    About a zillion acid-base extractions later... This is feasible, but someone smart enough to do it, is either "in the business" and doing your own product is not considered cool, or is in a "real business" thus making too much money to bother doing it themselves. It is much more profitable to outsource this work.

    Breeding coca must not be that hard. I don't know how easy cocaine refinery is, however.

    If you're willing to use stinky flammable solvents, not hard. The extraction process turns alot of raw material into a small amount of product and a great filthy pile of solvent contaminated waste. Think of a compost pile the size of a small mountain that is flamable. Coke only "works" if you have an army of poor peasants growing and gathering. You need acres of plants, barrels of solvents, and a way to safely (or otherwise) get rid of acres of plant waste and evaporated solvents. This works pretty well in poor semi-tropical nations. Not so good in downtown manhatten NYC. Which is why theres no such thing as homegrown coke. All that solvent vapor has to go somewhere, and into your lungs and around your water heaters pilot light are not the first choice... It's very much like growing and refining your own sugar from sugarcane, except instead of water, use flammable solvents and there is much more plant waste to get rid of. Best outsource this.

"I'm not afraid of dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens." -- Woody Allen