Brain Drugs are New Doping Frontier
By Karen Kaplan, Denise Gellene
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Forget sports doping. The next frontier is brain doping.
As Major League Baseball struggles to rid itself of performance-enhancing substances, people in a range of other fields are reaching for a variety of prescription pills to enhance what counts most in modern life.
Despite the potential side effects, academics, classical musicians, corporate executives, students and even professional poker players have embraced the drugs to clarify their minds, improve their concentration or control their emotions.
“There isn’t any question about it — they made me a much better player,” said Paul Phillips, 35, who credited the attention deficit drug Adderall and the narcolepsy pill Provigil with helping him earn more than $2.3 million as a poker player.
The medicine cabinet of so-called cognitive enhancers also includes Ritalin, commonly given to children for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and beta blockers, such as the heart drug Inderal.
Researchers have been investigating the drug Aricept, which is normally used to slow the decline of Alzheimer’s patients.
The drugs haven’t been tested extensively in healthy people, but their physiological effects in the brain are well understood.
They are all just precursors to the blockbuster drug that labs are racing to develop.
“Whatever company comes out with the first memory pill is going to put Viagra to shame,” said University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe.
Unlike the anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and blood-oxygen boosters that plague athletic competitions, the brain drugs haven’t provoked similar outrage.
People who take them say the drugs aren’t giving them an unfair advantage but merely allow them to make the most of their hard-earned skills.
In the real world, there are no rules to prevent overachievers from using legally prescribed drugs to operate at peak mental performance. What patient wouldn’t want his or her surgeon to be completely focused during a life-or-death procedure?
“If there were drugs for investment bankers, journalists, teachers and scientists that made them more successful, they would use them, too,” said Charles Yesalis, a doping researcher and emeritus professor at Pennsylvania State University.
The use of cognitive-enhancing drugs has been documented among high school and college students. A 2005 survey of more than 10,000 college students found 4 percent to 7 percent of them tried ADHD drugs at least once to remain focused on exams or pull all-nighters.
At some colleges, more than one-quarter of students surveyed said they had sampled the pills.
Phillips, the poker player, started using Adderall after he was diagnosed with ADHD five years ago and later obtained a prescription for Provigil to further improve his focus.
ADHD drugs work by increasing the level of the brain chemical dopamine, which is thought to improve attention.
The drugs improved his concentration during high-stakes tournaments, he said, allowing him to better track all the action at his table.
In the world of classical music, beta blockers such as Inderal have become nearly as commonplace as metronomes.
The drugs block adrenaline receptors in the heart and blood vessels, helping to control arrhythmias and high blood pressure. They also block adrenaline receptors in the brain.
“You still have adrenaline flowing in your body, but you don’t feel that adrenaline rush, so you’re not distracted by your own nervousness,” said Dr. Bernd Remler, a neurologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
That’s why Sarah Tuck, a veteran flutist with the San Diego Symphony, takes them to stave off the jitters that musicians refer to as “rubber fingers.”
“When your heart is racing and your hands are shaking and you have difficulty breathing, it is difficult to perform,” said Tuck, 41.
She estimates that three-quarters of musicians she knows use the drugs at least occasionally.
But cosmetic neurology, as some call it, has risks.
Ritalin, Adderall and other ADHD drugs can cause headaches, insomnia and loss of appetite.
Provigil can make users nervous or anxious and bring on headaches, while beta blockers can cause drowsiness, fatigue and wheezing.