Friday, May 22, 2009

Neuroscience: Drugs that supposedly boost brain performance

In "Pill wars: should we use drugs to boost our brains?", Gregory M. Lamb notes that "Taking stimulants like Ritalin, Adderall to improve concentration and job performance raises ethical questions" (The Christian Science Monitor, 2009 05 17).

He is talking about the growth in use of drugs to supposedly inprove brain performance:
At one point, an actor breaks from character to address the audience directly and advocate the use of Ritalin and Adderall, two over-the-counter stimulants, which, he says, helped him learn his lines.

The aside encapsulates a growing debate in scientific circles and living rooms across America: Should adults be using so-called "brain-boosting" drugs - normally intended to treat serious medical conditions - to improve concentration and performance?

College students, of course, have been using stimulants for years: They take modafinil, Adderall, and Ritalin (known on campuses as "vitamin R") to enhance their memories for exams or to stay up all night and press out a term paper. By one estimate, at least 10 percent of U.S. college students use prescription drugs as study aids.
Yuh. I know. My college roommate tried that forty years ago, and it ended in disaster. And I doubt much has changed since.

This is not just some airy fairy ethical question; it is a health question. Why pump yourself up with drugs just to do a job that lots of people do without drugs?

If the job is studying, here is some advice that has always worked for me (and I am nearly 60 years old, and always passed - and usually got A's):

1. Start studying weeks before the exam. You don't know what will happen later, so if you have a free evening now, use it.

2. Use tree diagrams, lists, magic markers, post-it notes, and whatever else you need to identify key concepts, separating them from the mass of facts from which they were formed. (Knowing the law of gravity does not mean observing every apple that fell from every tree since the world began. Get the concept right, and you are home free.)

3. Write yourself little quizzes. Chances are, your word processing software program has a tool for that, or you can download one, or write it yourself.

4. See if you can get hold of previous years' exam papers, so you can find out what sorts of questions you are likely to be asked. (A radical change is possible, but it is not usual.)

5. Eat healthy, get lots of sleep and exercise - and stop studying the day before the exam, so the ideas can start to arrange themselves in order of importance in your mind. Just rest and relax, and remind yourself that you are primed to do your best. So whatever you did, it was your best, and you can take it from there.

6. Forget drugs. That drug isn't taking the exam. You are!


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