Steroids for Academics?

So why if this is wrong for athletes, isn't this wrong for academics? Will we soon have congressional hearings on this?

While caffeine reigns as the supreme drug of the professoriate, some university faculty members have started popping "smart" pills to enhance their mental energy and ability to work long hours, according to two University of Cambridge scientists who polled some of their colleagues about their use of cognitive-enhancing drugs.

In a commentary published in Nature on Thursday, Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir revealed the results of an informal survey they conducted of a handful of colleagues who are all involved in studying drugs that help people perform better mentally.

Ms. Morein-Zamir said they asked "fewer than 10" colleagues in different fields who have done research on cognitive-enhancing drugs, such as Provigil, which is approved in the United States to treat narcolepsy and other severe sleep disorders. "We know that some people—academics—they could be philosophers or ethicists or people who do neuroscience, they chose to take some of these drugs," said Ms. Morein-Zamir.

The notion raises hackles in some parts of academe. "It smells to me a lot like taking steroids for physical prowess," said Barbara Prudhomme White, an associate professor of occupational therapy at the University of New Hampshire, who has studied the abuse of Ritalin by college students. Revelations about the use of performance-enhancing drugs in professional baseball have stirred public interest recently, and she sees parallels between athletes and assistant professors. "You're expected to publish and teach, and the stakes are high. So young professors have to work their tails off to get that golden nugget of tenure." . . .

Worries About Side Effects

. . . . For example, she notes, cheating the body of sleep suppresses the immune system and impairs brain functions. "There's no reason to believe that modafinil is protecting you from these really bad effects of long-term sleep deprivation," she said.

In fact, although cognitive-enhancing drugs have been on the market for decades (The Chronicle, June 25, 2004), it sometimes takes that long for side effects to become apparent. A major study published in August by the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry showed that children with ADHD who had taken stimulants grew less than did children with ADHD who did not take the drugs. . . . .

Unfair Advantage?

Even with such warnings, the allure of chemicals that confer an advantage may be hard to resist for academics, given the pressures they face. If there were a cognitive-enhancing drug that did not have side effects, said Ms. Prudhomme White, "would I be tempted? Damn right I would. ... Who wouldn't be?"

In their Nature commentary, Ms. Sahakian and Ms. Morein-Zamir asked people to consider whether and when cognitive-enhancing drugs are acceptable. While many people might agree that students should not be allowed to use such compounds during, say, a college-entrance exam, society might decide that it was worthwhile for surgeons or air-traffic controllers to use them. . . . .

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Echoes of "Brave new world" and "Flowers for Algernon" there.

I can see the temptation to take the drugs and the commercial incentive to attempt to develop new ones.

It would certainly be interesting if the basis for variation in human intelligence turns out to be chemical rather than soley structural.

everyone I know who is Bi-polar is also increadibly creative during their high periods, but do they pay for it with the lows!

Those who have been "medicated" often abandoned the treatment because of the numbness it causes. that, and their work is very different when on medication.

Saying that, the history of "mind enhancing substances" inludes the myths about cocaine.

Morphine and Diamorphine were used for a while as anti depressants (as both had "the benefits of opium but with none of the problems of addiction") as were the later synthetic barbituates, benzo-diazapenes etc.

With experience, all were ultimately addictive and debilitating.

Military use of amphetamine certainly keeps guys awake and fighting, but hell, look at the "friendly" fire it seems to contribute to. The same could also be said about the use of khat and coke by people prone to violence.

Drawing the Analogy with steroids in sport. I used to know a girl called Zoe Warrick. She got to number 6 in the world in female body building, but comitted suicide in 1995 aged about 32.

She had campaigned for several years against the use of anabolic steroids in sport, blaming her use of them for her massive mood swings, depression, and damage to her heart, liver, pancreas, immune system etc.

Friends who are fitness freaks are often derogatory about both male and female bodybuilders becoming extremely aggressive in the run up to competition as a result of the drugs they are taking. That said, a cousin of a long ago ex, used to get his kicks by beating the hell out of the steroid filled bouncers on the doors of night clubs. He was a scrawny little guy who worked on a farm. Apart from his (obviously)immature personality, he was both stronger and far more agile than the guys with the big water filled muscles.

I wonder whether "mind enhancers" have their own side effects?

12/21/2007 11:16 AM  

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