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People are taking drugs like Ritalin to help them perform better in school and work

And scientists aren’t sure that’s a good thing.

Image: Ian Barbour via Flickr/CC

THERE IS A growing trend of people using prescription drugs as a “lifestyle choice”, a pair of leading neuroscientists have warned.

Drugs such as Ritalin and Provigil are prescribed to aid concentration and fight sleepiness, but Professor Barbara Sahakian and Dr Sharon Morein-Zamir from the University of Cambridge say that people are now using them for school and work.

The drugs are being used to improve concentration, memory, and other aspects of cognitive performance. But very little is known about the long-term effects of this non-medical use, say the authors of a personal view in The Lancet Psychiatry published today.

“We simply do not know enough about how many healthy people are using cognitive-enhancing drugs, in what ways and why,”*, explains Professor Sahakian.

What evidence there is suggests that healthy individuals use cognitive-enhancing drugs to gain a competitive edge at school, university, or work, and for maintaining attention and performance when sleep deprived or jet lagged.

Most research has focused on student use in the USA with estimates varying between 5% and 35%. Worryingly, say the authors, this might only be the tip of the iceberg and is unlikely to be representative of usage in professional or older populations.

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Most cognitive-enhancing drugs have been developed by the pharmaceutical industry to treat the effects of impaired cognition in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and schizophrenia.

But non-medical use raises a host of safety and ethical concerns including side effects and potential abuse, particularly from sourcing on the internet. “Present cognitive-enhancing drugs have wide ranging effects and side effects and are not predictable. We also know next to nothing about their long-terms effects in healthy people,” says Dr Morein-Zamir.

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