Trinity Researcher Says Cognitive-Enhancing Drug Use May Be Warranted

James Hughes argues Ritalin and Adderall should not be shunned by Students

Adopting a somewhat contrarian point of view, James Hughes, Trinity’s director of Institutional Research and Planning, made a strong case during Thursday’s Common Hour for the use of drugs that enhance students’ ability to focus, concentrate and perform better academically.

Two of the most commonly used cognitive-enhancing drugs are Ritalin, which is typically given to people with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and Adderall, used to combat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder  (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Both are available by prescription, though it’s relatively easy to obtain either drug by other means.

“The basic point I want to make is that the use of stimulants and other cognitive enhancing drugs can be warranted by our general moral obligations to exercise more self-control, attentiveness and to be as intelligent as possible,” said Hughes. “In particular, students have specific moral obligations to learn, which can also legitimate their use of cognitive enhancement substances.”

Hughes, whose talk was titled, “Are we obligated to make ourselves more moral and intelligent?” made a compelling argument for why such drugs as Ritalin and Adderall should not be viewed in a negative context, likening them to caffeine, coca leaves, tea and chocolate – stimulants that have historically been used by various cultures and civilizations to enhance scholarly activity, moral self-control, meditation or to simply to stay awake. Some of those stimulants have been used for thousands of years without harmful effects.

Hughes drew a distinction between Ritalin and Adderall and amphetamines and cocaine, which became popular in the late 19th century. Cocaine was ultimately determined to be a public health risk and was outlawed in the United States in 1922. However, amphetamines continued to be prescribed for various ailments and were widely used in academia in the latter part of the 20th century.

“So am I defending amphetamine abuse?” asked Hughes rhetorically. “Not really. Although the drugs used for the treatment of ADD and as study aids are technically amphetamines, and have been regulated as highly addictive, they do not have the same addictive potential of those much stronger substances.”

Hughes said that although Ritalin and Adderall can suppress appetite and share some of the other physiological effects of amphetamines, they don’t appear to boost dopamine – an organic chemical that functions as a neurotransmitter and sends signals to nerve cells – in what Hughes called “the same dramatic fashion as cocaine or methamphetamine.”

Hughes said he was not trying to minimize the fact that some people take the drugs for recreational purposes and in higher doses than recommended, resulting in a dependency with health and psychiatric consequences.

But, he asserted, “the tens of millions of children and adults who have taken them without developing addiction argues that they are safer than the moral panic about them would have it.” Indeed, he said that children and adults treated with stimulant drugs are less likely to be drug abusers.

Although Ritalin and Adderall are not legally available without a prescription, Hughes said he doesn’t believe that this country’s drug laws are “terribly rational.” For example, alcohol and tobacco often cause death and disease and both are legal. Cannabis, which causes little death and disease, is illegal and half a million people are in jail as a result. And Tylenol, he said, is a leading cause of liver disease yet it is sold over the counter.

In his talk, Hughes offered four arguments to support the use of cognitive enhancing drugs, with the first being what he described as virtue. In people with ADD, stimulant therapies reduce the risk of substance abuse and criminal behavior. And non-ADD adults given stimulants have a lower risk of errors and accidents.

“If we know that we have a moral obligation not to drink when we drive, work, or take care of children because it makes us stupid, why do we not have an affirmative obligation to take a drug that makes us smarter at doing those tasks?” Hughes asked.

Hughes rebutted the notion that taking Ritalin or Adderall is cheating, saying a similar charge is not lodged against caffeine or other legal stimulants.

The second argument to support cognitive enhancement is based on the “liberal individualist rights” that people have to control their bodies and brains as they see fit so long as they don’t harm others. The third reason is what Hughes termed “consequentialism, the greatest good for the greatest number.”

“I believe the student considering whether to use the drug should not only consider that it may improve [his] own virtue, but that it may also, in the long run, be good for society.”

Hughes final argument is what he called the capabilities approach advanced by some philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum, meaning that the combination of pharmaceuticals and nanotechnology will be used in the future to provide whatever moods and experiences that people choose. What Nussbaum suggests, said Hughes, is that the good be defined in terms of the capabilities that everyone should be able to enjoy, and that there should be social policies to maximize those capabilities in society, whether they make people happy or not.

Hughes largely agreed with that reasoning, saying, “Even if the spreading use of cognitive enhancing drugs don’t make the users or society happier, I would contend that they do increase the aggregate capacities for reason and self-control.”

Hughes wrapped up his talk by taking a look at who uses cognitive enhancement drugs with or without a prescription. Estimates of usage vary from 4 to 35 percent, he said, but it tends to be more prevalent among students in the Northeast, more affluent students and those who attend competitive and elite schools.

He conducted a survey of Trinity students several years ago and found that 17 percent were taking stimulant drugs with a prescription and an equal number were using them occasionally without a prescription.

And in a survey of 1,600 academics in 60 countries conducted by Nature magazine in 2007, 20 percent of the respondents admitted to using cognitive enhancement drugs. In addition, 80 percent thought that healthy adults should be able to take the drugs if they wanted to and 70 percent said they would be willing to risk mild side effects to take the drugs.

In conclusion, Hughes said that he favors a more liberal approach to the use of cognitive enhancing drugs by adults, and that he would go so far as to argue that there is a “moral obligation to enhance our capacities for reason, intelligence and self-control.”