[ExI] Performance enhancing drugs reach academia

Amara Graps amara at amara.com
Thu Apr 10 02:36:21 UTC 2008

Don't miss the comments attached to the article and this remarkable quote too:

"As a professional, it is my duty to use my resources to the greatest
benefit of humanity. If 'enhancers' can contribute to this humane
service, it is my duty to do so."

Performance enhancing drugs reach academia


By John Timmer | Published: April 09, 2008 - 12:23PM CT

The sports world has been rocked by repeated doping scandals as athletes
have availed themselves of sophisticated formulations of steroids,
stimulants, and other drugs to get any edge they can in the face of
fierce competition. In an era of tight research budgets and journals
that don't even review the vast majority of manuscripts they receive,
competition in the academic world can seem equally fierce. If drugs
exist that increase focus or reduce anxiety, they could certainly give
an edge to people in the research community, and vague talk of their use
by academics has apparently become common enough to spawn an elaborate
April Fool's joke: the NIH-sponsored World Anti-Brain Doping Agency.

Beyond the jokes, how real is the problem? It's hard to tell, but
Nature, spurred by a commentary on the topic that appeared in its pages
in December, took a stab at finding out. They commissioned an informal
internet survey, open to the global scientific community, that surveyed
the use of a number of drugs that enhance mental performance. You may
insert various caveats about a self-selected survey population here.

The group of over 1,400 respondents were heavily biased towards US-based
researchers, who accounted for 70 percent of the results; the next
highest nation only registered as six percent of the survey population.
Those responding were widely spread across the scientific community;
three different fields registered in the teens, and the largest category
was other at 35 percent. Age was also broadly distributed. Although the
peak decade, 26 to 35, accounted for 34 percent of the responses, those
55 to 65 had a significant presence in the survey population.

Almost 35 percent of them have taken Ritalin, Provigil, or beta
blockers, and 60 percent of those were taking the drugs specifically for
improving mental capacity instead of medical reasons. The numbers varied
a bit among the age categories, but there was no real trend; those over
55 were about as likely to use them as those under 35. Ritalin was the
most popular drug, but a number of respondents had sampled more than
one. The vast majority took them for improving memory or concentration,
and the "other" response to that question handily beat combatting
jetlag, which accounted for a small fraction of the responses. Nearly
half who used the drugs took them daily or weekly, while half reported
unpleasant side effects (the overlap between the two isn't clear).

There are a number of reasons to view this phenomenon as something a bit
different from athletic doping. Seminars aren't really a form of
competition, yet they can still be crippled by a case of jetlag or stage
fright that a one-time dose of these drugs could reduce or eliminate. At
least one stimulant that has significant effects on behavior-caffeine-is
already widely used and abused by the scientific community, making the
step up to more potent drugs a small one. There's also an altruistic
motivation that can be hard to spot in the athletic world. Nature quotes
one researcher as saying, "As a professional, it is my duty to use my
resources to the greatest benefit of humanity. If 'enhancers' can
contribute to this humane service, it is my duty to do so."

Nevertheless, it gets tough to draw sharp lines that separate the
altruistic, innocuous, and selfish reasons for turning to these drugs.
Like other areas of society, however, the academic community will have
to decide what it means to achieve success in part through chemical
assistance, and whether that somehow alters the equations the research
field is governed by.

The survey results will be made available once the article goes live.

Nature, 2008. DOI: 10.1038/4501157a and 10.1038/452674a.


Amara Graps, PhD      www.amara.com
Research Scientist, Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado

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