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Ritalin is one of the drugs abused by some scientists

Look who’s doping,” says the headline over Nature’s report on its new reader survey about brain-enhancing drugs. Some 1,400 Nature readers took the online poll. Most clearly identified themselves as scientists; others indicated they were academics or journalists. The sample isn’t random, but it sure is eye-opening.

The survey focused on three drugs: beta blockers, which are often prescribed for cardiac problems; Ritalin (methylphenidate), normally prescribed for ADHD; and Provigil (modafinil), generally prescribed for sleeping disorders. Each of these drugs also has “off-label” uses—purposes for which it’s unofficially used but not officially prescribed. The article notes that Ritalin is “well-known on college campuses as a ‘study aid,’ ” Provigil is taken “to combat general fatigue or overcome jet lag,” and beta blockers can control anxiety. When taken for the latter reasons, these drugs aren’t exactly therapeutic. They become, as the article puts it, “neuroenhancers.”

The survey asked respondents whether they’d ever taken the drugs in question. Respondents were given three options: A) “No, I have never taken any of these drugs for any reason.” B) “Yes, I have taken one of these drugs for a medically diagnosed condition (e.g. narcolepsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or hypertension).” C) “Yes, I have taken one of these drugs or other drugs for non-medical reasons to improve my concentration, focus and memory.” Thirteen percent answered B. Twenty percent answered C.

You don’t have to be a scientist to do the math: The number of people who said they’d used these drugs for enhancement was 50 percent higher than the number who said they’d used them for therapy. Eighty-six percent of the admitted self-enhancers said they’d done it to improve concentration; 31 percent thought their pill of choice improved memory. Nearly two-thirds said they had colleagues who used the same drugs.

That’s a lot of doping. As my colleague Daniel Engber points out, neuroactive substances—specifically, beer—are already known to affect scientific performance. But drugs that move your career in a more positive direction are a relatively new frontier.

So far, the public conversation about doping has focused almost entirely on sports: Did Roger Clemens take steroids and human growth hormone? Does Mark McGwire belong in the Hall of Fame? Nerds in academia and the media have chirped about these topics in op-eds, columns, and TV debates. It’s easy to bat such questions around, figuratively, when that’s as close as you’ll ever get to a real bat. But what happens when the questions start hitting closer to home? What happens when the doping spotlight turns from jocks to nerds?

That’s what the Nature survey and related work by Anjan Chatterjee and Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania are beginning to do. They’re shifting the doping conversation from brawn to brains. A conversation that’s been mired in laughter at Jose Canseco and buttock injections is going to get uncomfortable for many of us who have been laughing the loudest. We thought we were above scrutiny, since we sit behind desks. But it turns out that we, or at least many of our colleagues, are taking drugs for an edge, much like the athletes we scold. And if Chatterjee is right, the problem will only get worse. Off-label cognitive enhancers are easy to get, especially over the Internet, and they’re gradually becoming normal in colleges and high schools.

The Nature survey suggests that some of us are suffering side effects, just like the jocks. But we do have an advantage: We’re slicker at rationalizing our behavior. “As a professional, it is my duty to use my resources to the greatest benefit of humanity,” a 66-year-old respondent wrote as he filled out the Nature survey. “If ‘enhancers’ can contribute to this humane service, it is my duty to do so.”

For the most part, I’m a skeptic of anti-doping policies. I’m wary of legislating where no harm is involved, which is where I think doping is headed, as techniques improve. The lines drawn tend to be pretty arbitrary, and after we’ve trampled the old rules, we often wonder why we ever enforced them.  But a shift in the conversation from jock doping to nerd doping might help me take the arguments for restriction more seriously.

When Nature asked whether “cognitive enhancing drugs should be restricted” in the context of “exam entry into university” or “standardized testing situations,” most of its reader-respondents said yes. Maybe their experiences as test-takers and test-givers helped them appreciate the threat to equality. Nature also asked another good question: “If other children at school were taking cognitive enhancing drugs, would you feel pressure to give such drugs to your children?” Two-thirds of respondents said they wouldn’t, but one-third said they would.

That’s always been a problem with enhancements: The more common they become, the more they feel like necessities. When the kid in question is somebody else’s high-school linebacker, it’s easy to scold or look the other way. But when it’s your honor-roll kid, the plight of the doper starts to feel a bit less academic.