Penn neuroscientists Martha Farah
and Anjan Chatterjee believe the answer
is more complicated than you think.


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Are Better Brains Better By Trey Popp
Photography by Candace diCarlo




It was somehow appropriate that it started with a clock-radio alarm. There were two overarching constants in Chris Miner’s life: Every slumber was a product of pure exhaustion and every awakening was rude. It wasn’t his private equity job. That merely consumed the daylight and dinner hours. It was the fact that getting home at nine or ten at night marked the beginning of a second shift. Ever since he’d started studying for the GMAT for business school, which meant an additional few hours of intellectual exertion with little more than his commute as a spell of rest, Miner felt like a circuit breaker full of shorts.

So he remembers the morning he first heard about modafinil the way a man lost in the forest remembers the sound of a search party’s shotgun blast. A news segment about the drug, marketed under the brand name Provigil as a treatment for narcolepsy and excessive daytime drowsiness associated with obstructive sleep apnea, detailed recent experimental evidence of its effects on healthy subjects. The take-home lesson was enticing. Modafinil not only boosted their mental alertness and stamina, it also appeared to enhance their performance on several learning- and memory-related tasks.

Miner hit up Wikipedia in the following days for more information. He learned the Air Force had used the drug to keep pilots alert and vigilant for 40 hours without sleep. Although there was scant research on modafinil’s long-term safety, its stated side effects seemed minimal. He ordered a package of 200-milligram pills from a Canadian Internet pharmacy. He hoped the drug would help him study and focus.

“It did,” he told me in September during a break between his Wharton MBA classes. (Chris Miner is a pseudonym. Like other students and faculty who spoke to me about their use of cognitive-enhancing drugs, he did so on the condition of anonymity.) “And it was inexpensive. So I used it. I took the GMAT, got a decent score, and then I forgot about it—put it in my desk along with my scientific calculator as something I didn’t need at that point in time.”

The need resurfaced when he came to Wharton. “There was all this stuff I had to ramp up on very quickly that I just didn’t understand. So I placed an order again.” This time he tried Ritalin, an older stimulant doctors have used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) since the 1960s. Judging from the Urdu script on the Novartis packaging delivered to Miner’s mailbox, these particular pills either came from Pakistan or were diverted at some point on their way to a pharmacy there.

“I subsequently learned that I’d actually seriously broken the law by directly having a hand in having that stuff imported off-prescription,” Miner told me. Diversion of prescription drugs for unauthorized use is a felony punishable by prison. “That’s what bothers me most of all.”

Though he prefers modafinil, Miner noticed the same thing about Ritalin that strikes virtually everyone who has tried it as a study aid. “Flipping open an accounting book—about the most boring book you can find—I said, Wow, this is really interesting! I’m enjoying this! … And that’s when I realized something unusual was going on.”

In some respects, the unusual thing about Chris Miner’s experience is that he found it that unusual.

A study published in 2005 estimated that some 7 percent of American college students had used prescription stimulants without medical supervision to augment their academic performance. At some universities the figure was as high as 25 percent. The students have company. In a 2007 Nature article titled “Professor’s Little Helper,” University of Cambridge neuroscientists Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir wrote, “In academia, we know that a number of our scientific colleagues in the United States and the United Kingdom already use modafinil to counteract the effects of jetlag, to enhance productivity or mental energy, or to deal with demanding and important intellectual challenges.”

Shortly after the article appeared, the journal conducted an online poll in which one in five respondents said they had used drugs like Provigil, Ritalin, or Adderall, another stimulant, for non-medical reasons. About a quarter of that group reported daily use.

If your goal was to provoke a lot of righteous consternation, you could do worse than to jump on a report suggesting that scientists and professors are doping at a rate that makes the professional cycling circuit look chaste. Yet the knee-jerk dismay over the prospect of “artificial” brain enhancement has lately met its match in a pair of Penn neuroscientists who are doing much to reshape the contours of the debate. Their names are Martha Farah and Anjan Chatterjee, and although each has a different perspective on the quest for better brains, both are convinced that the ethical quandaries it raises are at once more daunting and less intuitive than many people realize.

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