Last Updated: 2008-04-09 13:16:29 -0400 (Reuters Health)

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – An informal survey of individuals who read the journal Nature reveals that roughly one in five use prescription agents to improve their focus, concentration, or memory.

As reported in the April 10th issue of the journal, 1400 people from 60 countries responded to the online survey. The subjects were asked specifically about the use of three drugs: 1.) methylphenidate (Ritalin), which is used to treat ADHD, but is considered on college campuses as a "study aid"; 2.) modafinil (Provigil), which is prescribed for sleep disorders, but is used off-label to fight general fatigue or jet lag; 3.) beta blockers, anti-arrhythmic agents that are also known for their anti-anxiety effect.

Brendan Maher, a feature and commentary editor with Nature, analyzed the results and found that among those "who choose to use," methylphenidate was the most popular agent: 62% of users reported taking it. Modafinil was taken by 44% of users and beta blockers by 15%. Thus, many of the subjects were using more than one agent.

When asked about use of other agents, many of the subjects reported taking Adderall, an amphetamine similar to methylphenidate. Other drugs used included centrophenoxine, piractem, Dexedrine, and alternative medicines, including ginkgo and omega-3 fatty acids.

Use of cognition-enhancing drugs did not vary by age group, the report indicates. Maher said this may be surprising to some people since prior research has suggested increased usage in 18- to 25-years-olds.

Improving concentration was the main reason cited for using these drugs with enhancing focus on a specific task being a close second.

Usage patterns were evenly split between daily, weekly, monthly, or no more than once a year. Unpleasant side effects, including headache and jitteriness, among others, were reported by roughly half of users. The emergence of side effects did not correlate with decreased frequency of use, however.

Four-fifths of respondents believed that healthy adults should be permitted to take cognition-enhancing agents if they want to and 69% said they would risk mild adverse effects to take the drugs themselves. Eighty-six percent of respondents said that children under 16 years should be restricted from using these drugs, yet one-third of respondents said they would feel pressured to give their child these agents if other children were taking them.

In a related commentary, Dr. Barbara Sahakian and Dr. Sharon Morein-Zamir, UK researchers whose 2007 study of cognition-enhancing drug use prompted the current survey, caution that "although the appeal of pharmaceutical cognitive enhancers…is understandable, potential users, both healthy and diseased, must consider the pros and cons of their choices."

Drs. Sahakian and Morein-Zamir, neuroscientists with the University of Cambridge, add that "scientists, doctors, and policy-makers should provide easy access to information about the advantages and dangers of using cognitive-enhancing drugs and set out clear guidelines for their future use."

Nature 2008;452:674-675,1157-1159.

Copyright Reuters 2008. Click for Restrictions