Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Brain doping

The LA Times had a story yesterday about pharmaceutical companies having several mind-enhancing drugs coming down the pipeline. As the Times put it in their opening paragraph, a smart guy takes a pink one and gets even brainier for a few hours.
I know enough about the outskirts of this topic to say that the upside of these drugs is exactly what the article says. You will be able to get a temporary enhancement of concentration and arousal (alertness) with no hangover. I believe the compounds mentioned in the story will not be the ones which come in to widespread use, but the drug developers are probably only a hydroxyl group or so away from a water-soluble, non metabolizable smart pill.
The military is rightly very interested in these drugs. There was a widely reported friendly fire incident in Afghanistan in 2002 in which a Stealth bomber pilot was taking amphetamines at the time of the shooting. Amphetamines have similar drawbacks to caffeine, including jitters, which are not what you want in life-and-death situations.

The article discusses academic settings, specifically college tests, in which people pop a pill before taking a test. I think amphetamines would be as counterproductive as caffeine in this setting, but I don't have information about even ritalin. I'm guessing a very large, uncontrolled experiment is underway this week as college kids go through finals week. The new generation of brain pills will indeed improve scores when taken in this manner, and again, compared to alcohol, they will have tiny side effects when taken once-off.

The LA Times closes with a sort of scolding warning that the human brain has evolved to a certain equilibrium state, which these drugs might disrupt with long-term health consequences. I do believe this sort of argument for kids, and I try to keep my own kids away from even caffeine. And I would not take these pills myself. But that is my decision.
What is more interesting to me is the "brain-doping" concern: pills could give an unfair advantage to someone taking a test. This call for caution needs to be addressed, preferably before these pills are widely available. Compared to situations where athletic doping unfairly determines an outcome, far more people are professional "mind-athletes" (I think of myself as the intellectual equivalent of beach volleyball). So there are more competitive situations, more salaries and careers at stake, and therefore far more legal ramifications for a spoiled competition.

Efforts to keep performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals out of professional (and amateur?) athletics have been stymied by the gigantic market incentive pulling these products into circulation. (The health effects of steroids are very clear and alarming ). I guess the legal precepts guiding fair use will come on the athletic side first. But I think we're going to have to get comfortable with the fact that people will have access to these pills, and will take them.
UPDATE: Seems like not many of Fontana Labs' students have even heard of Ritalin. .

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