Page last updated at 08:39 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Pills offer competitive advantage

By James Melik
Business reporter, BBC News

a tablet of Ritalin
Controversy surrounds the use of Ritalin for the treatment of ADHD
Ambitious people are turning to drugs to increase memory power, concentration and focus, according to a survey carried out for Nature magazine.

The drugs in question are substances usually prescribed by doctors for illnesses such as dementia, attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder (ADHD), sleeplessness or high blood pressure.

Some anecdotal reports suggest their use by healthy people is increasing.

The survey revealed that roughly one in five of its readers who replied had used these drugs to heighten concentration.

Potential hazards

Barbara Saharkian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, told BBC World Service's Business Daily that academics were taking cognitive-enhancing drugs.

"They are taking these drugs to counteract jet-lag, make better decisions and to speak clearly when it came to lecturing," she says.

Higher blood pressure
Hair loss
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Weight loss

"Some people were also taking them so they would have a strong intensive work day," she adds.

People mostly take methylphenidate, the most common form of which is Ritalin, a standard treatment for ADHD, widely used by college students for enhancing cognition and for studying and cramming for exams.

Another widely-used drug is Modafinil, which was originally a narcoleptic agent treating excessive daytime sleepiness, but is now being used by shift workers in the United States.

Dr Saharkian warns that many of these drugs were developed as treatments and the long-term use of these drugs could potentially cause side-effects in otherwise healthy people.

There could be a massive new market for such drugs, especially for businessmen who wanted to enhance their entrepreneurs skills.

"I would be surprised if some of them weren't already using them, to be honest," she says.

Ethical concerns

The medications in question include brand names such as Adderall, Ritalin and Provigil. Some people think the use of these drugs could provide real benefits to healthy people and the world of business.

scene from NY stock exchange
Finance traders are faced with lots of information and make quick decisions

But there are serious questions about unapproved use - whether it carries health risks, whether it is morally right or even illegal, depending on the laws of various countries.

Nobody is suggesting that the companies who make these drugs are promoting their unprescribed use.

Novartis Pharmaceuticals, which manufactures about 10% of the drugs used to treat ADHD in the UK, insists that any prescription medicine should be taken as prescribed by a healthcare professional.

Zack Lynch, the founder and executive director of America's Neurotechnology Industry Organization, says people using these drugs include financial traders, software programmers and poker players.

These pills are not very helpful when trying to improve empathy
Zack Lynch, Neurotechnology Industry

"Financial traders take these drugs at the beginning of day to improve concentration, to absorb information they are looking at on their multiple-screens. [It's a] fast-moving environment and they need to be able to make quick decisions based on a whole host of information," he says.

From the anecdotal evidence that he has seen and heard, he believes people are using these drugs, but is unable to how widespread the practice might be.

Mr Lynch himself has used the drug under prescribed conditions and found it very effective.

They helped him concentrate when writing a long paper, but were not as good in situations requiring social interaction.

"They are great at focusing attention but not very helpful when trying to improve empathy among individuals."

As for acquiring the drugs, he says there is a "whole host of ways people can get hold of them without prescriptions - finding a psychiatrist who will diagnose them with ADHD, and that person may use them within the office and pass them on to colleagues.

portrait of Albert Einstein
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"They may be able to get them on the grey and black market on the internet," he adds.

Brave New World

"I believe we are entering an era of neuro-competitive advantage where neuro-technologies will be used to improve the competitive capabilities of individuals and companies and nations as a whole," according to Mr Lynch.

He says that we could find ourselves surrounded by drug-fuelled entrepreneurs, but there are also medical devices in development that can improve cognitive performance.

"There are direct portable stimulators that have been shown to improve short-term memory performance up to 20%," he says.

"You place the DC - direct current - on your forehead and it stimulates polarisation of the neurons within your cortex and it improves your ability to retain short-term memories.

"Scientists still don't know how this works or why this works, but what they are proving is that is does," he adds.

But if everybody took these substances, how could you find out who actually had the brain power, the person who had the insights and the genius?

Some studies done with the US Air Force showed that pilots with the highest percentage of reaction times who took Modafinil didn't improve their performance with the use of cognitive enablers.

"However, it did improve the reaction time of those in the middle percentiles," says Mr Lynch.

"These drugs will not radically improve individuals to make them smarter than Einstein. These are drugs that will improve people's concentration and performance in the order of 10-20%."

This feature can be heard on the Business Daily podcast dated 15 Dec 08

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