Hunter S. Thompson once said, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” If only he were alive today so a neuroscientist could have a look at his brain. But in my experience, there are college students who make good proxies. Somewhere tonight there will be a undergrad holed up in the library who will try to synthesize half a semester’s worth of material (as yet not studied thanks to booze) the night before a midterm by grinding a pill of prescription speed given by a friend with ADD, perhaps, into a fine dust for intranasal administration. Should he be successful then eventually it will be difficult to separate his desire for an education from his appetite for drugs.
College students’ voracious appetite for study drugs like Adderall is widespread enough that it was one of the main topics of a marquee lecture on neuroethics at SnF 2012 called “The Impact of Neuroscience on Society: The Neuroethics of ‘Smart Drugs.’” If it were not so well delivered in the enormous, dim, and mostly empty convention ballroom, I would have inquired as to whether part of determining such drug ethics involved donating samples to the press whose ostensible business it is to know what is going on.
But there we were, listening to excellent stuff by Barbara Sahakian, faculty at Department of Psychicatry at the University of Cambridge. I have long suspected that plenty of neuroscientists, unlike, say, economists (my own particular field), harbor deep fascinations with drugs since they go straight to your brain and pull the levers all which ways. In any case, Sahakian was the perfect choice to lead a drug lecture. Her focus is nowadays, besides ecstasy – ravers who came to her lab were found to be prone to depression due to extreme weekend highs and subsequent weekday lows – on prescription drugs for diseases and conditions like Alzheimer’s, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and depression, with the fundamental goal of understanding the neural basis of dysfunction to develop better drugs. Specifically, she wants to create drugs with no risk for substance abuse which means drugs that have no effect on dopamine. But that morning she had grander things to address.