Christian Undergrads and Brain Boosters


Have you noticed that every time you go online, there’s someone wanting you to take a survey? A lot of them seem to be aimed at finding out how to entice you to buy something. I want to talk about a different kind of survey -- one that The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity is sponsoring. That’s how important we think it is.

Dr. Susan Rouse is conducting a survey on the use of prescription drugs by college students. She’s interested in a particular kind of drug: cognitive enhancers, which I call “brain boosters.” You might recognize Ritalin© and a variety of others drugs that are prescribed for ADHD. There are many people with a genuine medical need for this type of medication, but it is also used by healthy students for non-medical reasons.

As Dr. Rouse puts it, the students probably think that since “these drugs are safe for ADHD patients to take then they are safe for anyone to take.”[1] However, there are both physical and ethical risks connected with these drugs. So, why would anyone want to take them? It’s not about the thrill of an LSD trip that tempted my generation, but something that might seem more admirable: these students use Ritalin and other drugs to “increase focus, wakefulness, and sociability.” For someone without a medical need, Ritalin can act as a brain booster, helping them concentrate; Provigil can help them stay awake all night to study; and Exelon might help them remember enough information to pass an exam the next day. And, brain boosters can make it easier for shy students to function in an extroverted world.

Let’s talk about physical risks. Some of these drugs can be addictive because of their euphoric effect. In the short term, they can disturb sleep, cause appetite loss, and may exacerbate mental illness. Later on, they might actually interfere with long-term memory, cause early brain decline, and intensify painful or unwanted memories. Brain boosters can also change our self-awareness, to the point where we are unable to recognize the drugs’ effects. We don’t really know, because this is a relatively new phenomenon.[2]

There are also the ethical risks. Serious concerns have been raised about fairness. For example, do brain boosters give some students an unfair advantage over others? What about those who don’t have access to the drugs? Or those who refuse to take them? What about the value of growth achieved by hard work?

More important is the question of the potential alteration of human nature. Will academic or intellectual performance become the chief criterion of human worth? There’s so much more to say, and I can give only a sampling of the concerns.        

Studies have already been done on secular campuses, but “no one has specifically looked at usage on Christian college campuses.” That’s what Dr. Rouse is after. Do Christian undergrads have the same attitudes about these brain boosters? Are they willing to buy or beg them from a friend with a legitimate prescription? Do they see any ethical problems? Are they aware of the physical risks?

Sometimes the most important part of bioethical analysis is getting good data. That’s why this study is so important. If your college student happens to mention it, pay attention. We all might learn something!

[1] Susan Rouse, email message to author, September 27, 2013. All subsequent quotes are from this email.

[2] A more detailed discussion of these issues will be available in: Susan Rouse, “Cognitive Enhancement in Education: The State of the Issue,” Dignitas 20, no. 3 (Fall 2013). (Available to members of The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Sign up for membership online.)




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