Doping for a cause (2008, April 4)

Doping for a cause: Brain-enhancing drug use by academics could improve research - as long as it doesn't lead to unfair competitionBy: Christina Domenico

Will academics be the baseball players of tomorrow, testifying on Capitol Hill about their alleged performance-enhancing drug use?

That's the question right now, as "brain doping" becomes the sister buzzword to "human growth hormone" and "anabolic steroid," - words popularized by the doping scandals that plague the sports world. Some neuroscientists believe that academia is about to enter an era of drug-induced brain enhancement.

But unlike baseball, in which a batter facing Roger Clemens' over-inflated shoulder can claim that the game's unfair, academia - and society as a whole - can benefit from the use of cognition-enhancing drugs.

As Stanford law professor Henry Greely points out, sports are a zero-sum game - when someone gets better, someone else gets worse - and players who have enhanced themselves with the use of drugs tip that balance in their favor.

Academia, however, doesn't work that way. One researcher's success is not hampered by another's performance. Greely added that "it's rare to have head-to-head competition" among academics - so the sports analogy doesn't hold up.

Cognitive-enhancing drugs such as Adderall and Provigil can affect a user's mental abilities by allowing them to concentrate completely on one task or giving them a period of alertness. There's also already a widely-used drug out there that produces similar effects - it's the caffeine you consumed in your morning cup (or two) of coffee.

Many researchers and students enjoy a daily caffeine fix to help keep them alert.

So, as Arthur Caplan, director of the Penn Center for Bioethics, pointed out in an e-mail, "if it is OK to drink three Red Bulls or six cups of coffee or tea to stay awake to get a paper written or corrected, why is it inherently wrong to do so with a pill?"

There are legitimate concerns, of course. Greely noted that the most pressing issues are safety, fairness and coercion. If the drugs have negative health effects, it's a bad thing. If they harm hiring practices or foster competition and inequality between universities, it's a bad thing. If an employee is forced to take them to work better, it's a bad thing.

But if an academic decides to give himself a boost by taking Adderall and consequently produces better research - well, that's a good thing. In essence, it's no different than stopping by Starbucks for a triple-shot latte, no foam.

Their use can improve the ability of academics to discover new things about the world. And that's the main goal of research.

And if academic research gets better, there's a social benefit attached to it. "The idea of doing things that lead to better research and the production of knowledge is a good thing, with all other things being equal," Greely told me.

I'm not saying that cognition-enhancing drugs are a necessity in any case. Rather, it's an individual's choice to use them, and we shouldn't be so quick to shout out against something that can yield such positive results.

If the era of "brain doping" really is on the horizon, there naturally will be concern about its future and consequences. And rightly so, as with any new trend. But unlike in the sports world, improving the ability of scientists and researchers to do their job effectively betters the world we live in.

If one day, a researcher whose heightened mental ability because of a pill finds a cure for AIDS, are we really going to sit him down in front of a Senate committee to question him about how he achieved such an incredible feat?

I would hope the answer to that question is a resounding "no."

Christina Domenico is a College junior from North Wildwood, N.J. Her e-mail is The Undersized Undergrad appears on Fridays. © Copyright 2008 The Daily Pennsylvanian