Brain doping to further science

The 10 April Nature presents the results of a survey that aimed to determine how many scientists are using cognition enhancing drugs. Caffeine is of course the most widely used stimulant, but it seems that quite a few people are using other substances to improve concentration.

For those who choose to use, methylphenidate was the most popular: 62% of users reported taking it. 44% reported taking modafinil, and 15% said they had taken beta blockers such as propanolol, revealing an overlap between drugs. 80 respondents specified other drugs that they were taking. The most common of these was adderall, an amphetamine similar to methylphenidate. But there were also reports of centrophenoxine, piractem, dexedrine and various alternative medicines such as ginkgo and omega-3 fatty acids.

The article, Poll results: Look Who’s Doping, reports that 1 in 5 respondents said they had used the drugs, and that all ages reported use. The whole thing started with an April Fool’s Joke by the Academic Editor in Chief of PLoS Biology! Evolutionary biologist Jonathan Eisen of UC Davis discloses all on his blog. Even thought it started with a joke, this brings up some very interesting ideas about human enhancement. Would it be so bad if people who need pinpoint concentration had the option of using a drug like Ritalin? Would they (we) be more productive, better scientists? I’m not sure. My recreational drug use currently consists of coffee and the occasional glass of wine and anti-fatigue ones from I don’t know if I’d try anything else. Even if I didn’t choose to use, I wouldn’t prevent others from using – the same way I feel about low-side-effect drugs like marijuana.
The editorial Defining ‘natural’, in the same issue of Nature, explores the idea that the definition of ‘natural’ should change over time, as technology makes more things possible.

Devices such as glasses, hearing aids, pacemakers and artificial hips are unnatural. Yet they are widely accepted as legitimate ways to enhance the human experience. By the same token, if drugs enhance performance on a standardized test, what is so ‘natural’ about prep courses designed to improve scores?

I heartily agree. We should always examine the ethical issues – but not let ethics overwhelm us. An aside of the Look Who’s Doping article, Worrying Words, lists the four major ethical problems associated with neuroenhancing drugs, confirmed by quotes from poll respondents:

Safety – “The mild side effects will add up to be profound in due course and may even require stronger therapy to control the addiction.” 26–35 years old from Nigeria

Erosion of character – “I wouldn’t use cognitive enhancing drugs because I think it would be dishonest to myself and all the people who look to me as a role model.” 25 or younger from Guyana

Distributive justice – “Morally puts a disadvantage to people without access.” 55–65 years old from the United States

Peer pressure – “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.” 66 or older from the United States

These are all valid issues, but we can not ignore the possible positive ramifications of these drugs. All sorts of professionals might benefit from enhanced concentration. Breakthroughs in science may take less time. This idea of ethical problems vs benefits is so similar to the arguments for and against genetic engineering. I hope we can all come to a satisfactory compromise on these and other issues facing science.
Note: A lot of scientist bloggers include some posts about academia, graduate student life, etc. I plan to start posting more on these topics.