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Poll: Scientists Use Brain-Boosting Drugs

Survey of Magazine's Readers Shows 1 in 5 Take Mental-Performance-Enhancing Drugs
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 9, 2008 -- One in five Nature readers -- mostly scientists -- say they up their mental performance with drugs such as Ritalin, Provigil, and Inderal.

The online poll from the British science magazine didn't ask readers how they felt about professional athletes using drugs to enhance their physical performance. But when asked how they felt about professional thinkers using drugs to enhance their cognitive performance, nearly 80% said it should be allowed.

While only a fifth of the poll's 1,400 respondents admitted to drug use to improve concentration, nearly two-thirds said they knew of a colleague who did. And if there were "a normal risk of mild side effects," nearly 70% of the scientists said they'd boost their brain power by taking a "cognitive-enhancing drug."

Scientists from all over the world participated in the poll, but 70% of respondents said they were from the U.S.

The most popular drug was Ritalin, used by 62% of responders. Provigil was the drug of choice for 44% of those polled -- suggesting that many of the users take more than one drug. Beta-blockers, such as Inderal, accounted for 15% of the drug use.

Most respondents said they took the drugs to improve concentration or to improve focus for a specific task. Counteracting jet lag was also a popular reason for drug use.

One alarming poll finding was how often respondents used brain-boosting drugs. It was an even split, with about 25% of users saying they took the drugs daily, weekly, monthly, or once a year at most.

When asked how big an effect the drugs had on their mental function, most users gave them a 3 or 4 on a 5-point scale with 1 being "mild" and 5 being "large." On the other hand, more than half of the users said the drugs had side effects they did not like.

On the question of whether children under age 16 should be allowed to use cognition-enhancing drugs, 86% of respondents said they should not. But a third of respondents said they would feel pressure to give such drugs to their children if other children at school were taking them.

The poll followed a December 2007 Nature editorial in which Cambridge neuroscience professors Barbara Sahakian, FMedSci, and Sharon Morein-Zamir, PhD, reported on the growing use of drugs to boost brain power.

The drugs, they note, are being used more and more in non-medical situations: by shift workers, for example, and by active military personnel.

"In academia, we know that a number of our scientific colleagues in the United States and the United Kingdom already use [Provigil] to counteract the results of jetlag, to enhance productivity or mental energy, or to deal with demanding and important intellectual challenges," they wrote.

Provocatively, Sahakian and Morein-Zamir wonder whether the modest effects of the most commonly used brain-boosting drugs are different from those imparted by, say, a double espresso.

"Just as one would hardly propose that a strong cup of coffee could be the secret of academic achievement or faster career advancement, the use of such drugs does not necessarily entail cheating," they suggested.

Sahakian and Morein-Zamir went on to suggest that future drug regulation -- and research -- will have to consider whether drugs can safely be used not just for treatment, but also for "enhancement."

Nature reports the poll results in its April 10 issue. Although Nature is a science journal, the poll is not a scientific study.

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