[ExI] LA Times: Drugs to build up that mental muscle

PJ Manney pjmanney at gmail.com
Tue Dec 25 19:08:53 UTC 2007

Front page article in the Los Angeles Times on brain doping.  Took
them long enough to notice.  The article has an odd focus and feels
pieced together by someone who doesn't know much about the subject --
I've seen more interesting hooks and data elsewhere.  But at least
it's getting mainstream press.



>From the Los Angeles Times
Drugs to build up that mental muscle
Academics, musicians, even poker champs use pills to sharpen their
minds, legally. Labs race to develop even more.
By Karen Kaplan and Denise Gellene
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

December 20, 2007

Forget sports doping. The next frontier is brain doping.

As Major League Baseball struggles to rid itself of
performance-enhancing drugs, people in a range of other fields are
reaching for a variety of prescription pills to enhance what counts
most in modern life.

Despite the potential side effects, academics, classical musicians,
corporate executives, students and even professional poker players
have embraced the drugs to clarify their minds, improve their
concentration or control their emotions.

"There isn't any question about it -- they made me a much better
player," said Paul Phillips, 35, who credited the attention deficit
drug Adderall and the narcolepsy pill Provigil with helping him earn
more than $2.3 million as a poker player.

The medicine cabinet of so-called cognitive enhancers also includes
Ritalin, commonly given to schoolchildren for attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder, and beta blockers, such as the heart drug
Inderal. Researchers have been investigating the drug Aricept, which
is normally used to slow the decline of Alzheimer's patients.

The drugs haven't been tested extensively in healthy people, but their
physiological effects in the brain are well understood.

They are all just precursors to the blockbuster drug that labs are
racing to develop.

"Whatever company comes out with the first memory pill is going to put
Viagra to shame," said University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Paul
Root Wolpe.

Unlike the anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and blood-oxygen
boosters that plague athletic competitions, the brain drugs haven't
provoked similar outrage. People who take them say the drugs aren't
giving them an unfair advantage but merely allow them to make the most
of their hard-earned skills.

In the real world, there are no rules to prevent overachievers from
using legally prescribed drugs to operate at peak mental performance.
What patient wouldn't want their surgeon to be completely focused
during a life-or-death procedure?

"If there were drugs for investment bankers, journalists, teachers and
scientists that made them more successful, they would use them too,"
said Charles E. Yesalis, a doping researcher and emeritus professor at
Pennsylvania State University. "Why does anyone think this would be
limited to an athlete?"

The growth of the brain drugs bears a striking resemblance to the
post-World War I evolution of plastic surgery -- developed to
rehabilitate badly disfigured soldiers but later embraced by healthy
people who wanted larger breasts and fewer wrinkles.

The use of cognitive-enhancing drugs has been well documented among
high school and college students. A 2005 survey of more than 10,000
college students found 4% to 7% of them tried ADHD drugs at least once
to remain focused on exams or pull all-nighters. At some colleges,
more than one-quarter of students surveyed said they had sampled the

The ubiquitous mental stimulant is coffee, and a morning jolt is
sufficient for many. But as scientists were developing drugs to treat
serious brain disorders, they found more potent substances.

Sharon Morein-Zamir, a psychologist at Cambridge University who writes
about the ethics of brain enhancement, said her interest in the
medications was largely academic. But when someone she knew who had
been taking Provigil for a neurological condition offered her some
pills, Morein-Zamir's curiosity was piqued.

"I knew the literature and wondered what it felt like," she said.

The drug helped her focus as she worked at her computer for hours
straight. But she wondered if it was a placebo effect.

"Maybe I would have gotten it done anyway," said Morein-Zamir, who
launched an Internet poll Wednesday to ask scientists about their use
of brain-enhancing drugs.

Philips, the poker player, started using Adderall after he was
diagnosed with ADHD five years ago and later got a prescription for
Provigil to further improve his focus. ADHD drugs work by increasing
the level of the brain chemical dopamine, which is thought to improve
attention. Provigil's mechanism of action is not well understood, but
boosting the effect of dopamine is thought to be part of it.

The drugs improved his concentration during high-stakes tournaments,
he said, allowing him to better track all the action at his table.

"Poker is the sort of game that a lot of people can play well
sporadically, but tournaments are mostly won by people who can play
close to their best at all times," he said. "It requires significant
mental effort to play in top form for 12 hours a day, five days in a

In the world of classical music, beta blockers such as Inderal have
become nearly as commonplace as metronomes.

The drugs block adrenaline receptors in the heart and blood vessels,
helping to control arrhythmias and high blood pressure. They also
block adrenaline receptors in the brain.

"You still have adrenaline flowing in your body, but you don't feel
that adrenaline rush so you're not distracted by your own
nervousness," said Dr. Bernd F. Remler, a neurologist at the Medical
College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

That's why Sarah Tuck, a veteran flutist with the San Diego Symphony,
takes them to stave off the jitters that musicians refer to as "rubber

"When your heart is racing and your hands are shaking and you have
difficulty breathing, it is difficult to perform," said Tuck, 41, who
discovered them when she began performing professionally 15 years ago.

A survey she conducted a decade ago revealed one-quarter of flutists
used the pills before some or all of their performances or in
high-pressure situations like auditions. She believes use is now more
widespread and estimates that three-quarters of musicians she knows
use the drugs at least occasionally.

Prescriptions for Inderal and other beta blockers can be readily
obtained from physicians. Tuck said some doctors had told her they
used the drugs themselves to calm their own nerves before making
presentations at medical meetings. Musicians say their drug use is all

"It's not like we're sending our clubhouse attendants to BALCO to get
us our Inderal," said double bassist Bruce Ridge, 44, referring to the
Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative that allegedly provided slugger Barry
Bonds and other athletes with performance-enhancing drugs.

But cosmetic neurology, as some call it, has risks. Ritalin, Adderall
and other ADHD drugs can cause headaches, insomnia and loss of
appetite. Provigil can make users nervous or anxious and bring on
headaches, while beta blockers can cause drowsiness, fatigue and

One Stanford University study found that low doses of Aricept improved
the performance of healthy pilots as they tried to master new skills
in a flight stimulator, but the side effects -- dizziness and vomiting
-- were less than desirable in a pilot.

No one has conducted thorough studies about how brain-boosting drugs
would affect healthy people after weeks or months of use, said Dr.
Anjan Chatterjee, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Negative consequences may not be limited to people who popped the pills.

Martha J. Farah, a bioethicist who teaches undergraduates at the
University of Pennsylvania, said she was beginning to detect
resentment toward students who used the drugs from classmates who did
not. She has wondered whether improving productivity through
artificial means also might undermine the value of hard work.

In an article published today in the journal Nature, Morein-Zamir and
University of Cambridge neuroscientist Barbara J. Sahakian say that
clear guidelines are needed to decide what's fair. It may be
reasonable to ban the drugs in competitive situations, such as taking
the SAT. But in other cases, they wrote, people such as airport
screeners, air-traffic controllers or combat soldiers might be
encouraged to take them.

With a slew of memory enhancers in development, the issues are not academic.

Memory Pharmaceuticals of Montvale, N.J., for example, is eyeing drugs
to combat those pesky "senior moments" that are considered a normal
part of aging.

"If there were drugs that actually made you smarter, good Lord, I have
no doubt that their use would become epidemic," Yesalis said. "Just
think what it would do to anybody's career in about any area. There
are not too many occupations where it's really good to be dumb."

karen.kaplan at latimes.com

denise.gellene at latimes.com

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