Brain Doping In Academics, No Joking

Armen Hareyan's picture

Nature survey shows that 20 percent of 1400 participant scientists had used cognition enhancing drugs to stimulate focus and concentration or memory.

Last week I linked to a story about the NIH cracking down on "brain doping:" scientists who use drugs to enhance their cognitive performance. The story was of course a prank perpetrated by Jonathan Eisen of the UC Davis Genome Center.

Eisen's joke, it turns out, is a little more on the mark than he thought. Today, Nature magazine publishes the results of an online survey of 1400 scientists from 60 countries.

One in five respondents said they had used drugs for non-medical reasons to stimulate their focus, concentration or memory.


For those who choose to use, methylphenidate (Ritalin) was the most popular: 62% of users reported taking it. 44% reported taking modafinil (Provigil), 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 most popular reason for taking the drugs was to improve concentration. Improving focus for a specific task (admittedly difficult to distinguish from concentration) ranked a close second and counteracting jet lag ranked fourth, behind 'other' which received a few interesting reasons, such as "party", "house cleaning" and "to actually see if there was any validity to the afore-mentioned article".

Use of drugs that enhance physical performance is widely banned in professional and amateur sports. But what about cognitive enhancers, which are becoming increasingly available? Should their use be restricted or banned? What about coffee, a well-known lubricator of scientific thought? Is an espresso okay, but not a caffeine pill?

All participants who took part in the survey were asked 10 questions designed to gauge their attitudes towards neuroenhancing drugs. Almost all respondents (96%) thought people with neuropsychiatric disorders who have severe memory and concentration problems should be given cognition-enhancing drugs. But perhaps surprisingly, a high four-fifths thought that healthy adults should be able to take the drugs if they want to. And 69% reported that they would risk mild side effects to take such drugs themselves.

When asked whether healthy children under the age of 16 should be restricted from taking these drugs, unsurprisingly, most respondents (86%) said that they should. But one-third of respondents said they would feel pressure to give cognition-enhancing drugs to their children if other children at school were taking them.

This was an online poll, which may have skewed or exaggerated the results. However it seems clear that when it comes to chemical brain enhancement, the future is here.