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Pills or Practice? Boosting Brain Power

Our Tom Jacobs wrote in March about plagiarism and fraud among writers and academics, referring to it as a "doping scandal" in the world of letters. The term was meant to be a metaphor, but as it turns out, there may be greater use of performance-enhancing drugs going on in intellectual circles than one might expect.

The prestigious international journal Nature conducted an online poll of its readers - most of whom are scientists working in academic settings - and reported that 20 percent of the 1,400 respondents said they had taken some type of prescription drug in an effort to increase their concentration or cognitive skills. The drug of choice? More than 60 percent of those who acknowledged using performance-enhancing drugs selected Ritalin, a stimulant that has achieved some notoriety as a common treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.

Of course, two-thirds of respondents indicated they had never taken Ritalin, Provigil (a sleep disorder drug used to treat fatigue), or beta blockers (best known as heart drugs but also used to decrease anxiety) as cognition enhancers. Yet almost 70 percent of those who responded to the poll said they'd be willing to tolerate a "normal risk of mild side effects" if they could improve their brain power with drugs, and four-fifths of respondents expressed a belief that healthy adults should be permitted to use such drugs if they desired.

Two-thirds denied, however, that they would feel obliged to give brain-boosting drugs to their kids if other children at school were taking them. They might advise their offspring to play the old game Concentration instead: an American-Swiss research team just published a study indicating that "fluid intelligence" - the ability to solve new problems even in the absence of any prior knowledge of how to do so - can be increased by doing exercises to improve working (or short-term) memory.

The concept of practice improving performance may not seem surprising, but according to the study, previous research had been unable to identify any type of cognitive training regimen that improved fluid intelligence, a trait heretofore "claimed to be largely immutable." Repeatedly taking tests of fluid intelligence improved test scores, but did not increase fluid intelligence itself. In the experiment described in the paper, the researchers administered tests of fluid intelligence and then had the subjects complete a "very demanding working memory task" that required them to process and remember both visual and auditory information.

Compared to a control group that didn't complete the exercises, the group that received the memory training demonstrated much greater gains in fluid intelligence , and the more training they had gotten, the better their scores.

So, as with Carnegie Hall, the way to the National Academy of Sciences may be - not a pill - but practice, practice, practice.