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Smart Drugs “As Common As Coffee”: Media Hype about Neuroenhancement
Published: Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Author: Bradley J. Partridge et al.

by Bradley J. Partridge, Stephanie K. Bell, Jayne C. Lucke, Sarah Yeates, Wayne D. Hall

Background

The use of prescription drugs to improve cognitive functioning in normal persons –“neuroenhancement” – has gained recent attention from bioethicists and neuroscientists. Enthusiasts claim that the practice is widespread and increasing, and has many potential benefits; however recent evidence provides weak support for these claims. In this study we explored how the newsprint media portrays neuroenhancement.

Aims

We conducted an empirical study of media reporting of neuroenhancement to explore: media portrayals of the prevalence of neuroenhancement; the types of evidence used by the media to support claims about its prevalence; and, the possible benefits and risks of neuroenhancement mentioned in these media articles.

Methods

Using the Factiva database, we found 142 newspaper articles about the non-medical use prescription drugs for neuroenhancement for the period 2008-2010. We conducted a thematic content analysis of how articles portrayed the prevalence of neuroenhancement; what type of evidence they used in support; and, the potential benefits and risks/side-effects of neuroenhancement that were mentioned.

Results

87% of media articles mentioned the prevalence of neuroenhancement, and 94% portrayed it as common, increasing or both. 66% referred to the academic literature to support these claims and 44% either named an author or a journal. 95% of articles mentioned at least one possible benefit of using prescription drugs for neuroenhancement, but only 58% mentioned any risks/side effects. 15% questioned the evidence for efficacy of prescription drugs to produce benefits to users.

Conclusions

News media articles mentioned the possible benefits of using drugs for neuroenhancement more than the potential risks/side effects, and the main source for media claims that neuroenhancement is common and increasingly widespread has been reports from the academic literature that provide weak support for this claim. We urge journalists and researchers to be cautious in their portrayal of the non-medical use of drugs for neuroenhancement.

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