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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)

These drugs represent only the first primitive, halting generation of cognitive enhancers. Memory drugs will soon make it to market if human clinical trials continue successfully.

There are lots of the first-generation drugs around. Total sales have increased by more than 300 percent in only four years, topping $3.6 billion last year, according to IMS Health, a pharmaceutical information company. They include Adderall, which was originally aimed at people with attention-deficit disorder, and Provigil, which was aimed at narcoleptics, who fall asleep uncontrollably. In the healthy, this class of drugs variously aids concentration, alertness, focus, short-term memory and wakefulness -- useful qualities in students working on complex term papers and pulling all-nighters before exams. Adderall sales are up 3,135.6 percent over the same period. Provigil is up 359.7 percent.

In May, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America issued its annual attitude-tracking study on drug use. It is a survey of more than 7,300 seventh- through 12th-graders, designed to be representative of the larger U.S. population and with an accuracy of plus or minus 1.5 percent, according to Thomas A. Hedrick Jr., a founding director of the organization. It reported that among kids of middle school and high school age, 2.25 million are using stimulants such as Ritalin without a prescription.

That's about one in 10 of the 22 million students in those grades, as calculated by the U.S. Department of Education. Half the time, the study reported, the students were using these drugs not so much to get high as "to help me with my problems" or "to help me with specific tasks." That motivation was growing rapidly, Hedrick says.

Why should we be surprised? This generation is the one we have pushed to get into the best high schools and colleges, to have the best grades and résumés. Computer nerds are culture heroes, SAT scores are measures of our worth and the Ivy League is Valhalla. Hermione Granger in "Harry Potter" is a heroine despite being such a goody two-shoes that she doubles up her course load with a spell that allows her to be in two places at once. This is the kind of focused overachievement that is addressed by smart pills.

A student Web site for a consortium of tony Philadelphia prep schools makes the point with one of those jokes that's not really a joke: You know you are part of this elite educational set if:

· "You applied to Penn as a backup school."

· "You tend to think anything below a 1400 is a mediocre SAT score."

· "You could get adderall in less than 5 minutes at practically any time of the school day."

Smart-pill use has not been the focus of much data collection. This comes as no surprise to researchers such as Richard Restak, a Washington neurologist and president of the American Neuropsychiatric Association, who has written extensively about smart drugs in his 2003 book, "The New Brain: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind," as well as his forthcoming "The Naked Brain: How the Neurosociety Is Changing How We Live, Work and Love."

Contributing to this dearth, he points out, is that these drugs are not famous for being abused recreationally and they are not being used by people with a disease.

This is not "the type of data collected by the FDA," he says. Law-enforcement activity has been sparse. "Who is the complainant?"

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