A Dose Of Genius

Harvard professor Howard Gardner wonders if smart pills can benefit those with nontraditional expressions of intelligence such as musical competence and manual skills.
Harvard professor Howard Gardner wonders if smart pills can benefit those with nontraditional expressions of intelligence such as musical competence and manual skills. (By Laurie Swope For The Washington Post)

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By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2006

Studying with diligent friends is fine, says Heidi Lessing, a University of Delaware sophomore.

But after a couple of hours, it's time for a break, a little gossip: "I want to talk about somebody walking by in the library."

One of those friends, however, is working too hard for dish -- way too hard.

Instead of joining in the gossip, "She says, 'Be quiet,' " Lessing says, astonishment still registering in her voice.

Her friend's attention is laserlike, totally focused on her texts, even after an evening of study. "We were so bored," Lessing says. But the friend was still "really into it. It's annoying."

The reason for the difference: Her pal is fueled with "smart pills" that increase her concentration, focus, wakefulness and short-term memory.

As university students all over the country emerge from final exam hell this month, the number of healthy people using bootleg pharmaceuticals of this sort seems to be soaring.

Such brand-name prescription drugs "were around in high school, but they really exploded in my third and fourth years" of college, says Katie Garrett, a 2005 University of Virginia graduate.

The bootleg use even in her high school years was erupting, according to a study published in February in an international biomedical and psychosocial journal, Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Mining 2002 data, it noted that even then, more than 7 million Americans used bootleg prescription stimulants, and 1.6 million of those users were of student age. By the time students reach college nowadays, they're already apt to know about these drugs, obtained with or without a prescription.

Comparable accounts are common on other campuses, according to dozens of interviews with university students in Virginia, the District, Maryland and Delaware, as well as reports in student newspapers serving campuses in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Michigan, Indiana and Missouri.

"I'm a varsity athlete in crew," says Katharine Malone, a George Washington University junior. "So we're pretty careful about what we put in our bodies. So among my personal friends, I'd say the use is only like 50 or 60 percent."

Seen by some ambitious students as the winner's edge -- the difference between a 3.8 average and a 4.0, maybe their ticket to Harvard Law -- these "brain steroids" can be purchased on many campuses for as little as $3 to $5 per pill, though they are often obtained free from friends with legitimate prescriptions, students report.


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