Talk to most people about ‘performance enhancing drugs’ and they conjure up images of elite athletes using drugs to increase muscle mass and oxygen delivery. In academia, performance is measured as creative thinking and working smart under crushing deadlines.

Last week, JAMA drew attention to a series of studies in which higher cognitive function was improved in individuals when they took so-called ‘cognitive enhancers’ even though they did not have a clinical diagnosis of ADHD or other condition in which the drugs are prescribed.

The JAMA piece highlighted a study published in European Neuropsychopharmacology this spring which left many with the idea that under high stress professional situations, individuals who take cognitive enhancers do better. Thirty-nine highly rated male members of the German Chess Federation went in head-to-head competitions with a skill level matched computer program and played 3000 15-minute games. Players were given 2x 200 mg of caffeine, 2x 20 mg of Ritalin, 2x 200 mg of modafinil (Provigil) or a placebo.*

In bad news for Starbucks, caffeine was largely ineffective, but both Ritalin and modafinil improved player performance. Not only did the players on prescribed cognitive enhancers win more games, they also did better on neuropsychological exams.

Before you run off to your nearest doc-in-a-box to get your prescriptions, a few “buts” go along with this. First, even though the players did better, they often struggled to do well in the allotted time. From the authors,

Individuals are reflecting longer in the sense of accumulating more information, i.e., investigating more lines and making better moves on average. Chess results should then improve, but the effect might be offset by more losses on time.

The second drawback, and here’s a big second, people on stimulants who don’t have ADHD can be selohssa if you know what I mean (and can spell backwards).  These drugs are easily abused and can have really, really bad side effects.

Does this mean you if you take one of these drugs, you are going to see more potential pitfalls to your ideas in the short term? Mayhaps. Certainly, folks in the tech industry are no strangers to the so-called ‘Breakfast of Champions’ (i.e. RedBull and Adderall).

Lieb and colleagues previously published data that one in five neurosurgeons in Germany self-reported using stimulants (like modafinil and Ritalin) to improve their work performance. And if you think that’s ‘a Germany problem,’ you obviously never tried to get a prescription for anything in Germany. It’s not easy, friends.

One great reason to not ask the question about what these numbers look like for US academics is because we don’t want to know the answer. A decade ago the notoriously not funny journal Nature published an April Fools joke discussing an imagined crackdown by NIH on ‘brain doping’ on grantees. The post was met with some serious fear and backlash by scientists on social media (presumably followed by a healthy dose of the nearest anxiolytic drug) given the number of academics who were violently opposed to drug testing.

We have already crossed a line in academia. Adderall and modafinil abuse in college students should mean it comes as no surprise that these habits stay with folks well into their professional lives.

Be sure to read the JAMA bit on stimulants. There’s lots of good stuff in there about cognitive enhancers for conditions other than ADHD and debate on restoring lost function.

*Don’t try this at home kids.

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