Several brain scientists recently wrote in the journal Nature (published online December 7) that it is time that science and society explore and, ultimately, sanction the use of pills to enhance brain function in people with no psychiatric disorder at all. After all, they reason, pills already exist that can improve attention span, memory and alertness in normal individuals. Many students already use illegally obtained Adderall to boost their academic performance, and many adults use Provigil to stay awake and energetic at work. So why not sanction the use of these drugs and, perhaps, many others to help anyone who might want to perform better and feel better?
Using pharmaceuticals to change one's mood, energy level or comfort socializing, one could argue, isn't any different than men (who are not impotent) using Viagra to improve their sexual performance or any of us drinking six cups of caffeinated coffee a day to stay more awake and feel a little happier or less irritable.
There's potential trouble, however, with any plan to open the floodgates and allow pharmaceutical manufacturers to develop and market substances that alter brain chemistry in healthy people. One of the problems is that it could easily raise the bar in terms of what it takes to be competitive in school or at work-just as letting athletes freely use performance enhancing drugs in sports would make it a near-necessity for every athlete to use them.
Another problem is that once we green light chemically synthesized compounds for people without any disorder who simply want to be happier, more productive or more energetic, our laws against illicit substances like opiates (including pain killers like Percocet and Oxycontin) start to look suspect. It could be argued that there may be millions of Americans with low potential for addiction who might enjoy the euphoric effects of Oxycontin, be able to work long into the night while using it and be able to stop using it periodically to prevent themselves from becoming fully dependent on it.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that using pills to alter how we function intellectually, emotionally or otherwise can easily create a tide that sweeps us further and further from the reality of our life circumstances. Even if your work makes you unhappy, why consider following your heart to another career when you can change your brain chemistry so you feel alert and energized just by popping a pill? Why make fundamental changes in your marriage to improve it when you can dose yourself with a substance that will make you feel calm and connected at home, without changing a thing? Why learn to lead a balanced existence, with the time you need to reflect or to recharge, when all the valleys in your day can feel like peaks? Sounds a lot like taking a drink or smoking a joint to dodge reality, doesn't it?
It is probably inevitable that growing numbers of Americans will turn to pharmaceuticals already in existence to boost their brainpower. But it may be a desirable brake on a potential runaway train that doctors currently have society's blessing to prescribe medications only to those suffering with recognized psychiatric disorders. Defining life itself, including work life, as a kind of disorder worth treating, or as a baseline to be raised chemically (higher and higher), feels like floating free of our ties to our real-life emotions and passions and possibilities.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His newest book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement. Check out Dr. Ablow's website at livingthetruth.com or e-mail him at
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.