Juiced

Track-and-field star Marion Jones went to prison for it, pitcher Roger Clemens denied to a congressional committee that he did it, outfielder Barry Bonds was indicted last year for perjury and obstruction of justice related to an investigation into whether he did it. But while athletes get almost all the attention when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs, it turns out that another group is also juiced: scientists.

In an online survey that drew 1,400 people from 60 countries, the journal Nature asked scientists whether they had ever taken drugs reputed to boost brain power. The journal focused on three: the stimulant methylphenidate (Ritalin), which is prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder but which students use to rev themselves up before tests or marathon study sessions; modafinil (Provigil), prescribed for sleep disorders but which has a street reputation for keeping you awake for all-nighters ("gotta finish this grant application!"); and beta blockers, prescribed for cardiac arrhythmia but well known among performers who use it to combat stage fright because of the drugs’ anti-anxiety effect.

One in five of those who answered the Nature survey copped to using one or more of these drugs to juice their concentration or memory. Ritalin was the most popular, with 62 percent of users saying they took it (and not because they have an ADHD diagnosis). Another 44 percent took Provigil, and 15 percent took beta blockers. Obviously, as you can tell by summing the numbers, some people are taking more than one.

The most frequent reason for mental doping was to improve concentration, though partying, house cleaning and “to actually see if there was any validity” to articles about the drugs were also up there. There was an even split between scientists who took the drugs daily, weekly, monthly or less often. My favorite reason? This one, from a scientist who described him- or herself as over 65: “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.”

Just as the ethics of doping in sports is endlessly debated, so is brain doping. In the Nature survey, four-fifths “thought that healthy adults should be able to take the drugs if they want to.” And one-third said they would feel pressure to give brain-boosting drugs to their children if other kids were taking them. (As in, “but mom, all my friends are taking Ritalin before the SAT; do you really not want me to?”) You can see the full result on Nature’s site. Should scientists--or anyone--take drugs that purpotedly boost their mental powers? What would you do if you knew that your competitor down the hall was juiced?

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