March 9, 2008
New York Times
Brain Enhancement Is Wrong, Right?
By Benedict Carey
So far no one is demanding that asterisks be attached to Nobels, Pulitzers or Lasker awards.
Government agents have not been raiding anthropology departments, riffling book bags, testing
professors’ urine. And if there are illicit trainers on campuses, shady tutors with wraparound
sunglasses and ties to basement labs in Italy, no one has exposed them.
Yet an era of doping may be looming in academia, and it has ignited a debate about policy
and ethics that in some ways echoes the national controversy over performance enhancement
accusations against elite athletes like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
In a recent commentary in the journal Nature, two Cambridge University researchers reported
that about a dozen of their colleagues had admitted to regular use of prescription drugs like Adderall,
a stimulant, and Provigil, which promotes wakefulness, to improve their academic performance. The
former is approved to treat attention deficit disorder, the latter narcolepsy, and both are considered
more effective, and more widely available, than the drugs circulating in dorms a generation ago.
Letters flooded the journal, and an online debate immediately bubbled up. The journal has
been conducting its own, more rigorous survey, and so far at least 20 respondents have said that they
used the drugs for nonmedical purposes, according to Philip Campbell, the journal’s editor in chief.
The debate has also caught fire on the Web site of The Chronicle of Higher Education, where
academics and students are sniping at one another.
But is prescription tweaking to perform on exams, or prepare presentations and grants, really
the same as injecting hormones to chase down a home run record, or win the Tour de France?
Some argue that such use could be worse, given the potentially deep impact on society. And the