Altered mates: drugs in science

This week’s Nature has an article about the illicit use of cognitive enhancing drugs by healthy people just wanting to push their limits, including working scientists.

These are the same drugs that have caused concern about their level of use among students, chiefly modafinil (Provigil) and methylphenidate (Ritalin), although other drugs such as Alzheimer’s medication donepezil (Aricept), non-amphetamine ADHD drug atomoxetine (Strattera) are also candidates.

The article argues that the use of these drugs by healthy people raises some new ethical questions that need to be addressed and particularly discusses their use by scientists.

The issue is hardly new, however, as scientists have been using chemical pick-me-ups as long as science has existed.

Mathematicians have been noted for their use of amphetamines (Paul Erdős being a famous example) and there are plenty of famous figures from other fields who have made use of drugs for tweaking their mood or mind.

William Stewart Halsted, the “father of American surgery” and founder of the surgery department at John Hopkins Medical School, was a long-term cocaine and morphine addict.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have had a long history of trying out drugs on themselves and expanding their consciousness with hallucinogens in attempts to understand how the mind and reality can become distorted.

As we’ve noted previously, many of the so-called ‘new’ ethical issues, apply equally well to past drugs and past situations.

Probably the only genuinely new aspect, is that there are virtually no long-term studies on these newer drugs, so it’s still not clear on what the long-term effects might be. Perhaps more scary than their use by consenting adults therefore, is their use on children.

Nevertheless, on this occasion Nature have set up an online forum to discuss the use of drugs by scientists, so you can join the debate yourself.

Link to Nature article ‘Professor’s little helper’.
Link to Nature forum ‘Would you boost your brain power?’.

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