Boost Kids' Brainpower With a Pill

Exercise for mind and body may be a better fix.

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If you could give your children a legal drug that would make them better students, would you jump at the chance—or jump the other way? That's the question raised by brain researchers this week in Nature, a leading scientific journal. The drugs in question are Ritalin and Adderall, the widely used yet controversial medications used to treat attention deficit-hyperactive disorder. "Enhancement is not a dirty word," says Henry Greely, a Stanford University law professor and coauthor of the commentary.

Kids are already hip to this, of course. High school and college students have no problem buying Adderall from their peers despite the fact that it's a felony to buy or sell the stimulant without a prescription. My colleague Alison Go investigated the situation on campus for our 2007 report on the health consequences of legal stimulants and found that students are well aware of Adderall's pluses (stay up all night to cram for exams or party) and minuses (jitters, unpleasant crashes with overuse, possible addiction).

Taking Ritalin or Adderall also appears to raise the risk of cardiovascular problems, a fact that caused the Food and Drug AdminstrationAdministration to require warnings with prescriptions starting in 2007. Since then, the cardiologists and pediatricians have been battling over whether all children taking stimulant drugs should be screened for heart problems with an electrocardiogram. For now, the pediatricians are winning. They think it's folly to give all children on ADHD drugs a $100 test that often has false positives, and that a pediatrician's regular exam should catch most heart problems.

Unfortunately, there's also no data on the benefits of stimulant drugs as performance boosters for people without ADHD; the anecdotal benefits appear to be mild at best. In a 2008 poll of Nature readers, 25 percent of the 1,400 respondents (who presumably are Ph.D. research scientists) said they had used drugs for nonmedical reasons to stimulate focus, concentration, or memory. Of those, 62 percent said they'd taken methylphenidate, the generic name for Ritalin. Almost all of the pharmaceutical adventurers said that healthy children should be barred from using the drugs, but one third said they would feel pressured to dose their own children if they knew that other children at school were taking them.

The specter of parental coercion of children to take mind-enhancing drugs really worries Greely. "As a parent, I've coerced my kids many times, whether it's sending them to school or telling them they can't watch TV anymore and have to go outside and play. Those are coercive actions we take that we hope will enhance them."

But because children don't have the same ability to give consent and make free choices as adults do, Greely adds, parents, and society at large, should be exceedingly cautious. He's surprised that schools and the purveyors of SATs and bar exams haven't addressed the use of performance-enhancing drugs. "The official school policies seem to be focused on burying their heads in the sand."

Research on the improvement of memory and cognition in adults finds one clear winner so far: exercise. And adequate sleep is essential to both long- and short-term memory, as Wilkie Wilson, codirector of Duke University's DukeLEARN program, pointed out to me recently with his "how to learn more without studying more" manifesto.

In a few years, we might have brain-enhancing drugs that are really amazing, and then we'll have some serious soul-searching do to. For now, though, the best prescription for making kids think better longer is disarmingly simple: Go for a run, and get a good night's sleep.