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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)

Compared with the kind of drug users who get police attention, "This is an entirely different population of people -- from the unmotivated to the super-motivated," Restak says. These "drug users may be at the top of the class, instead of the ones hanging around the corners."

Smart-pill use generally doesn't show up in campus health center reports, he says, because "This is not the kind of stuff that you would overdose on" easily. Amphetamines are associated with addiction and bodily damage, but in use by ambitious students, "if you go a little over you get wired up but it wears off in a couple of hours. And Provigil has a pretty good safety record." Finally, smart-pill use is a relatively recent development that has not yet achieved widespread attention, much less study, although Restak expects that to change.

"We're going to see it not only in schools, but in businesses, especially where mental endurance matters." Restak can easily imagine a boss saying, " 'You've been here 14 hours; could you do another six?' It's a very competitive world out there, and this gives people an edge."

That's why even small surveys conducted by students themselves are suggestive. For a senior project this semester, Christopher Salantrie conducted a random survey of 150 University of Delaware students at the university's Morris Library and Trabant Student Center.

"With rising competition for admissions and classes becoming harder and harder by the day, a hypothesis was made that at least half of students at the university have at one point used/experienced such 'smart drugs,' " Salantrie writes in his report. He found his hunch easy to confirm.

"What was a surprise, though, was the alarming rate of senior business majors who have used" the drugs, he writes. Almost 90 percent reported at least occasional use of "smart pills" at crunch times such as final exams, including Adderall, Ritalin, Strattera and others. Of those, three-quarters did not have a legitimate prescription, obtaining the pills from friends. "We were shocked," Salantrie writes. He says that in his report, he was "attempting to bring to light the secondary market for Adderall" specifically because "most of the university is not aware" of its extent, he says.

When you start asking questions about smart pills, the answers you get divide sharply into two groups.

When you ask the grown-ups -- deans, crisis counselors, health counselors -- they tell you they don't know too much about the subject, but they don't think it is much of a problem at their institutions.

"I'm not sure of the size and scope," says Jonathan Kandell, a psychologist and assistant director at the University of Maryland Counseling Center. "I have heard about it. But I don't get a sense it's a major thing that they come to the center about."

When you ask the students, they look at you like you're from the planet Zircon. They ask why you weren't on this story three years ago. Even if some of these drugs are amphetamines, it's medicine parents give to 8-year-olds, they say. It's brand-name stuff, in precise dosages. How bad can it be? Sure, there are problems with weight loss, sleep loss, jitters and throwing up, they say. But other unintended consequences are not what you might expect. Universities now sport some of the cleanest apartments in the history of undergraduate education. Says one student who asked for anonymity because she has been an off-prescription user of these drugs: "You've done all your work, but you're still focused. So you start with the bathroom, and then move on to the kitchen . . . ."

Warning: Side Effects

In the name of altering mood, energy and thinking patterns, we have been marinating our brains in chemicals for a very long time.

Caffeine is as old as coffee in Arabia, tea in China, and chocolate in the New World. Alcohol, coca leaves, tobacco and peyote go way back.

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