The Blue Pill Makes You... Smarter

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The newest performance-enhancing drug?

The newest performance-enhancing drug? Source: Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Source: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Here's a little word association game: when I say "performance-enhancing drugs," what comes to mind? Pill-popping professors looking for an academic edge... that's exactly right, well done! Seriously, there's quite a debate going on in some academic and professional circles over whether or not it's fair/ethical/safe to use what are called "cognitive enhancing drugs." Is it like taking steroids in sports, or more like an extra cup of coffee in the morning? Think about it... if you've got a big job interview that requires an aptitude test, but you haven't been sleeping well would you take a pill to improve your chances, just this once? Or if it's finals time and you have to get an "A" to get into grad school, and you know that other student competing for the fellowship is taking a little brain-booster, what do you do? It's not just an academic debate, either. A commentary in the journal Nature on this topic set off a spirited back and forth on the news blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education. And, The New York Times wrote about a possible "era of doping... in academia." What do you think: is popping a pill to give your brain a boost just as bad as taking steroids in sports? And more to the point, would you do it?



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What are the log term side effects?

Sent by Turk | 3:17 PM | 3-17-2008

I'm a Ph.D. student at a major research university, and experienced a major improvement in productivity when I was prescribed a Methylphenidate drug for excessive daytime sleepiness. This was diagnosed by an elaborate (and expensive) sleep study. Sleep study results are probably hard to fake, and my insurance requires frequent re-approval for drug coverage. Is the climate among prescribing physicians too lenient with regards to proof of need, i.e. have physicians created this problem by prescribing where there is not proven need?

Sent by John | 3:18 PM | 3-17-2008

I can't imagine anyone taking these drugs if they don't have to. My husband has suffered from narcolepsy for years and is now disabled because of it. He has taken both Ritalin and Provegil but with little affect now because he has built up a tolerance to them. They have terrible side effects - high blood pressure, headache, and nervousness.

Sent by Gwen | 3:18 PM | 3-17-2008

I am a college student. The one time I tried Adderal, I ended up cleaning my room more than writing my paper. I never did it just doesn't feel right.

Sent by Cathy 22-from TX | 3:19 PM | 3-17-2008

I have hypothyrodism and heart problems. My doctor prescribed provigil to supplement a lower dose of thyroid medication and not trigger heart palpitations. It was a struggle to get my insurance to pay for it, but my doctor was able to justify it for a limited period of time.

I can certainly tell that my alertness increases when the provigil begins to work. It has definitely improved my work performance.

Sent by MeloDee French | 3:19 PM | 3-17-2008


I persuaded my physician, in 1982, to prescribe a 5mg dosage of ritalin for me to engage in some personal experimentation for brain-function enhancement.

All I can say is that that summer I had the best educational experience at summer school I ever had, or probably will ever have. I still remember, vividly, the subject material (history of mathematics, etc.) even 26 years later...

Sent by Sam West | 3:20 PM | 3-17-2008

I have Narcolepsy and I had been prescribed Ritalin and Provigil at different times. The provigil did nothing that I noticed, but the ritalin side affects were so intense I had to stop (even with a small dose). If through the narcolepsy these drugs are used, does that mean I also need them to enhance my brain function because of narcolepsy also?

Sent by J. Barley | 3:20 PM | 3-17-2008

Can you see any long term harm of studying using these drugs in the career orientated to their majors. Does the material learned retain the same? Are we at risk of a career orientated generation with unlearned college skills only having degrees?

Sent by Will Oberleitner | 3:25 PM | 3-17-2008

I was diagnosed with ADD in college (15 years ago). After taking ritalin, my GPA went from a 2.5 to a 4.0 overnight. Ritalin, which is a speed drug, calms down and focuses the brain of someone with ADD. If you don't have ADD, it may keep you awake, but probably will not enhance learning. Unfortuneatly, ritalin is highly addictive, and I was so pleased with the academis results that I took it basically around the clock. I could actually feel my brain responding to the chemical. Anyway, I stopped eating and sleeping and eventually had to undergo treatment (diagnosed at the time as depression, but in retrospect it was clearly addiction). Knowing my children's genetic predisposition to drug abuse (and addiction, in general), there is no way that I will let either of them take methylphenidate.

Sent by Sonja | 3:26 PM | 3-17-2008

When I was in college a few years ago, adderal, dexadrime and other stimulants where very easy to get and where taken as recreational drugs almost as much as they where taken as studdy buddys. I was given a whole perscription of high dose adderall which I took over a week, stopped sleeping and flipped out. I am at a high risk for this being bipolar, but it is definatly a risk for anyone.

Sent by Tim | 3:26 PM | 3-17-2008

When I attended college, 45 years ago, we took dexedrine to prepare for important exams and to write papers. They had the effect of increasing concentration. An amusing anecdote that happened to me:
On the eve of an exam, a group of us decided to play a hand or two of bridge "until the dex kicks in". The next morning at 9 am we were still playing furiously, with the exam only two hours away.

Sent by John Findley | 3:29 PM | 3-17-2008

Do these drugs help with old age ?

Sent by JEFF | 3:29 PM | 3-17-2008

Using drugs to improve test scores is like using computers to improve study habits. In both cases some students do not have access to both. Using a tool to improve your abilities in test taking is not unethical. If it is then we need to create a system were all students have the exact tools available to them.

Sent by Adam Bettencourt | 3:29 PM | 3-17-2008

How about for tennis or golf?
How about to play through the pain in football?

Sent by John M Miller | 3:29 PM | 3-17-2008

I was given Ritalin and Dexedrine for ADD (not ADHD) as a 15 year old. It didn't help me concentrate it only made me anxious. When I started kicking holes in the wall I stopped taking the drug.

Sent by Aidan | 3:30 PM | 3-17-2008

Barbra are you considered the Jeremy Clarkson of the academic world. I took Ritalin in college illegally and found that it helped write and organize complex thoughts. Down side is that sleep is hard to induce.

Sent by John | 3:32 PM | 3-17-2008

Anyone who thinks the main diversion for these drugs in college is academic may not have read much of Tom Wolfe.

Sent by John M Miller | 3:32 PM | 3-17-2008

In the case where students, shift workers or doctors are taking cognitive enhancing drugs, is anyone concerned that perhaps we are working too hard, or working in a way that is unhealthy with respect to long term health?

Sent by bob | 3:33 PM | 3-17-2008

I recently started taking adderall and it has completly changed everything. I can now focus on whatever I need whenever I need. Their is only one way that I can explain how it feels and works. When I take my medication it's like watching a rough ocean completely calm down and turn into a calm sheet of glass allowing me to calm down do what I need to do.

Sent by Bobby McCleery | 3:33 PM | 3-17-2008

...the only thing that strikes me while people use any kind of "enhancer" is - why are people so unhappy with the way they "are" naturally?

As with the use of physical performance enhancers I would be greatly concerned over the long-term impacts on people who use these drugs without medical cause.

Sent by Dave Perrino | 3:33 PM | 3-17-2008

I was legally diagnosed with ADHD years ago and take Adderall daily to help me function in the workplace. It is very upsetting to hear about people taking this medicine illegally. Illegal use of this medication makes it even harder and more expensive for those of us who actually need this medicine to obtain it for use in our daily lives. This illegal use also creates a negative perception of this medication which can affect people with ADHD in the workplace as well as in schools and universities.

Sent by Jody | 3:35 PM | 3-17-2008

Provigil. As a factory worker that has a rotating weekly shift, days, afternoons, graveyard, I've had trouble adjusting to the different schedules. Provigil when taken in the "morning" before work can get me thru an 8-12 hr shift, albeit I've had difficut days when it gets confusing at work. This does seem to help and I don't take it on my days off. These vary in length from 1-4 days at a time. I do believe provigil helps, but I've always wondered what a placebo would do.

Sent by Gary Watson | 3:35 PM | 3-17-2008

I used adderall in high school but now that I'm at a small college where I can't find it, I've started using cocaine. Obviously taking an FDA approved drug illegally makes more sense than taking a street drug

Sent by Samantha | 3:36 PM | 3-17-2008

I think it's important to note the dangers of these drugs for some people. I have major clinical depression and take an anti-depressant. Shortly after I returned to work following maturity leave, I started taking Adderal, given to me by a helpful friend, to bring my mental ability up to par in the face of sleep deprivation. Unfortunately, after a month, I developed anxiety problems and an increase in my depression. I had to up my dosage of anti-depressants and start Xanax, which continued for six more months even though I had quit the Adderal. I don't think these chemicals are really safe for those of us with clinical depression.

Sent by Dana in Portland | 3:37 PM | 3-17-2008

By the time I retired from pediatrics I had coined the phrase, "Lake Wobegon Syndrome" for the many parents who did not consider the signoff " ... and all the children are above average." to be humor.

Sent by John M Miller | 3:37 PM | 3-17-2008

I was prescribed adderal when I was 8 yrs. Old. It was a misdiagnosis and a horrible experience that stole about 10-12 years of my life. At the end of the ordeal I was *prescribed* the maximum dosage due to my tolerance and I was exhibiting signs of OCD. I was also extremely moody and aggressive. The results are still with me now, I do not trust doctors and obsessively research any med prescribed. My point is that spectrum for this diagnosis is far to large and produces little automotons that seek for external support for any stressful situation. I say the pharmacutical industry is to blame for this rampant pill popping culture.

Sent by Leigh Anne | 3:38 PM | 3-17-2008

Brain-boosting drugs are not new. Remember Timothy Leary and LSD? The performance enhancing effects of Speed? The creativity caused by marijuana? Or the efficiency claim from users of cocaine? This is just the next generation of drugs and they are available from pharmacies instead of just the guy on the street. Ethics? the jury is in on that one. When patients on chemo-therapy are prevented from using a known relief from the side effects, we must assume that brain-boosters will not be considered appropriate.

Sent by sherry | 3:40 PM | 3-17-2008

If you want to address the issue of using 'brain-enhancing' drugs in our universities, you must first address the educational system itself. By focusing on standardized tests and quantitative methods for evaluating performance, students will be driven to do anything necessary to be successful. If you take the pressure off of meeting such arbitrary measures of success then students won't feel as pressured to turn towards drugs. Participatory and experiential education methods would be better alternatives and would facilitate learning in a more natural and enjoyable atmosphere. Few would take drugs if they didn't feel like the future of their lives was riding on the outcome of a multiple choice test...

Sent by Christopher Smith | 3:52 PM | 3-17-2008

My daughter has been prescribed ADHD medicines over the past few years. Another side-effect I have noticed is drastic mood swings and volitility. Has anyone studied the relationship between increased use of these drugs and campus shootings?

Sent by Kathy | 4:03 PM | 3-17-2008

I am a mother of two teenager both of which have begged me to take them to the doctor to be put on adderal. The high school they go to is highly competitive and they claim the students who do well are on it. They have purchased it illegally (I find out after the fact) in order to study for tests and meet deadlines. One has graduated, and never quite forgiven me for my inaction on the matter. The other is still on me, and insists its the only way to keep his grades up to par. I have spoke with his school councilor about it, who really did not want to discuss the matter. Is it expected of a good mother to provide these drugs to her children so they can excel? Have I short changed them? The son who has graduated became so far behind, he gave up. He graduated by the skin of his teeth. What are the side effects of taking these drugs for a prolonged amount of time, and once they depend on them for their performance does that mean a life sentence.....

Sent by Michelle | 4:05 PM | 3-17-2008

I was finally diagnosed with narcolepsy about 9 years ago, and was prescribed Provigil. It has greatly improved my quality of life. I am a nurse, and had a job that required lots of traveling. Falling asleep at the wheel on more than one occasion made me push for a sleep study. I am very thankful that this drug is available. The only effect that I have noticed is being alert during the day...I have no difficulty sleeping at night. It has never given me a "high" or a "rush". I feel that it has allowed me to feel "normal".

Sent by Laurel Pritchard | 7:25 PM | 3-17-2008

I am intrigued and horrified by this topic. My daughter, age 7 and in 2nd grade, has recently been diagnosed as having ADD/ADHD (inattentive type). Since she entered school I have watched her struggle with school work and with the social skills and cry because she knows she is different from the other kids and feels like she is less able than they are. It is times like these I think I am going to try the medication route - anything to help her feel like she is just as good as her friends. Right now we are working on behavior and self-talk skills to build up her ability to self-regulate, but it is so clear that she suffers a real deficit. Now I read that all her friends will be taking the same drug too so she'll be back to where she started! It does seem more than a little sad that a medication that can give kids with a real need, a chance to play on an even field would be used by kids (and adults, apparently) who's only need is to get an A instead of an A-.

Also, shame on any doctor who you prescribes these medications without real cause.

Last, I don't think anyone here has mentioned that we need to take a good look at the education system that sorts kids more and more according to test scores and less and less on what they actually know and can do. Shame on schools and universities who decry the use of prescribed medication for unintended purposes and then brag to the nation and US News that it's average accepted student's SAT score was well over 1300!

Sent by Ann | 10:50 PM | 3-17-2008

hello -

I am very concerned about the way our culture encourages the casual use of pharmaceutical drugs, which are toxic, unnatural substances that have unknown long-term consequences to the mind & body. Every day we hear about one drug or another that has to be removed from the market for causing some terrible side effect. Just listening to the list of possible side effects in drug commercials should be enough to frighten people away from them all!

Every year, many people die or get extremely ill from using prescription drugs prescribed by their doctors (or "borrowed" from others) when simple dietary changes &/or natural remedies are just as helpful & not at all harmful.

I think it's shameful that more health professionals don't encourage people to eat healthier or use something like pure peppermint essential oil to sharpen their powers of concentration. (Dr. William Dember of the U of Cincinnati found that inhaling pure peppermint oil increased mental accuracy by 28%. Other facts: Clove oil reduced candida infection in test subjects by 75% after 8 days, closely equivalent to Nystatin. In 1987 the Int'l Journal of Food Microbology reported that essential oils of cinnamon, thyme, & clove killed 92% of 25 different gram negative & positive bacterial strains. I have many more statistics like these - you can read articles about these oils on my blog at

Medical professionals especially are far too influenced by the pharmaceutical companies that wine & dine them from their first day of medical school. (My son is a doctor so I know this for a fact.)

My husband & I have been using therapeutic grade (healing grade; ingestible) essential oils (such as peppermint, wintergreen, lemon, clove, cypress, lavender, frankincense, & many more) for pain, infections, colds & flus, cysts, arthritis, back pain, fungus, oral health, & much, much more for the past 4 years - with great success & no side effects other than healthy ones.

Just my 2 cents.

Sent by Dale Vinicur | 12:17 AM | 3-18-2008

One point overlooked in this discussion is
the rare but very dangerous side affect that can cause psychotic and sometimes homicidal behavior in some people that take Ritaline and Adderol. My friend who is a psychologist and ADD expert told me the possible side affects is this dangerous behavior in individuals that have no history of violence.

Sent by Frank T. | 1:44 AM | 3-18-2008

My 4th grade teacher said "if you would just pay attention, you'd be as smart as your brother".In those pre-historic times ADD was not in the lexicon and I struggled all through academia, always believing I was stupid. My last name began w/an "S" placing me in one of last seats in the class-room. When I returned again to college to attend nursing school I sat directly in line of site of the instructor. It helped. I still watched the bird on the windowsill. Years past. About 15 years ago, seeking psychiatric care for depression after being fired for tardiness, not being able to focus to work more quickly. The psychiatrist tested me for ADD. Of the 20 symptoms of ADD I had 19. I was placed on Dexadrine in addition to the medication for depression I had been taking. My life changed. The ADD was not an excuse but a reason for this behavior. I do not abuse the Dexedrine. I am a clinician and well aware of the severe consequences of abuse and dependency. I have been on the same dosage for 15 years. Often I do not take any Dexedrine or reduce the dose. I am 74 years old, employed full-time as an RN working for a non-profit agency serving the medically indigent, frail elderly so they may remain safely in their own homes. I am "elderly", blessed with good health and cognitively intact. Many years ago I remember speaking to the Ciba detail man who pitched Ciba's drugs to the doctors I worked for. He told me about the medication, Ritalin. It was classified as a "psychic energizer" then.
I agree with your experts that these drugs can be and are abused. Then there are those of us whose brain chemistry is deficient. We do not have the physical ability to function in a manner considered normal. Prisons are littered with those who failed in school because they were not diagnosed and for one reason or another never received the medications and behavioral techniques to reach their potential. It turns out, I am not stupid. I am long-winded. I am aware when I am tempted to interrupt someone else's conversation. I do not expect my comments to be aired. I needed to advocate for sufferers, children and adults, who have or could benefit from a thorough evaluation with a reputable clinician. It never occurred to me that I might have been a physician, scientist, obtain post-graduate degrees, or become the opera singer I had planned and studied to be.
Thank you for the opportunity to express my comments.

Sent by Charlotte Sudakov | 3:20 AM | 3-18-2008

I got through college and law school of coffee and doritos. Anything else is cheating!
These drugs are not to be trifled with and if you cannot get through an exam without them how are you going to perform at work for which you are preparing for without them?
If your natural smarts won't get you there maybe you should not BE there.

Sent by paige | 10:07 AM | 3-18-2008

I listened to the program on NPR and must say that I was very interested in learning more (as I always am with NPR programs)! I take Provigil on days that I am having difficultly functioning. I have Fibromyalgia and find that there are days that I am SO TIRED/SLEEPY, I CAN'T FUNCTION. It's painful to even try to stay awake. Taking the Provigil makes me feel NORMAL. I personally don't feel that the drug "enhances" me in just makes me feel more like my "normal self" and allows me to function just like everyone else.

Sent by Karla Friesenhahn | 10:22 PM | 3-24-2008

I take Provigil bec. without it, I can barely keep my eyes open by the afternoon.
It helps me function normally. I don't get "high" in any way from it. I have also been taking anti-depressents for many years, and have been able to cut back on the anti-depressents since I started the Provigil.
It is a life saver for me!!

Sent by sierratessie | 2:38 PM | 3-27-2008