NIH getting serious about brain doping

There have recently been several articles in the media about brain enhancers, so-called Nootropics, or “smart drugs”. They have been abused by college students for many years now, but they are now seeping into other places where long periods of intense mental focus are required, including the scientific research labs. Here is a recent article in New York Times:

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.

And here is a recent article in the Baltimore Sun:

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.

It is apparently used in business:

I’ve long thought that the use of performance enhancing drugs, typically associated with professional sports, would spread to other endeavors as science progresses. Arguably, many professionals already use chemicals to improve their performance. Constant nicotione and caffeine consumption has been endemic in the business world for a long time, and more recently prescription drugs such as Adderall have been used and abused by white collar professionals to improve focus and concentration. Chemical-assisted performance is by no means a panacea. It carries with it a host of medical and ethical questions. Yet as we gain deeper insight into the way the human brain works, we’ll inevitable be confronted with new opportunities and dilemmas such as these.

Nature also recently had a discussion on the use of brain enhancers by the academics:

Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir from the Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge University argue that the increased usage of brain-boosting drugs by ill and healthy individuals raises ethical questions that cannot be ignored. An informal questionnaire Sahakian and Morein-Zamir sent to some of their scientific colleagues in the US and UK revealed fairly casual use by academics, and we now want to hear your views on the topic..

The problem is getting serious enough that an international organization has recently been founded, the World Anti-Brain Doping Authority:

The agency works to help individual academic federations implement testing procedures in the fields of academic research. It also produces a list of prohibited substances that academics are not allowed to take and maintains the World Anti Brain-Doping Code.

This is pretty scary stuff. On one hand, these drugs have not been tested very well, so nobody knows what nasty side-effects they mat have with repeated and prolonged use, so this is certainly a worry. But I thought that it was a little bit too much, or at least premature, that the NIH is jumping in on this bandwaggon, with, IMHO, quite drastic proposed measures:

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced three new initiatives to fight the use of brain enhancing drugs by scientists. The new initiatives are (1) the creation of the NIH Anti-Brain Doping Advisory Group (NABDAG), a new trans-NIH committee, (2) a collaboration with the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) and the European Commission to create the World Anti-Brain Doping Authority (WABDA) and (3) the adoption by the NIH of the World Anti-Brain Doping Code – a set of regulations on the use of brain enhancing drugs among scientists.
“These new initiatives are designed to level the playing field among scientist in terms of intellectual activities,” said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D. “These three activities are designed to get NIH ahead of the curve in terms of performance enhancing drug use among scientists.”
NABDAG will serve to coordinate activities across different NIH agencies in terms of regulating the use of brain enhancing drugs. The trans-NIH group will be directed by internationally renowned doping authority Jonathan Davis, Ph.D., current director of research at WADA.
“The priority of NABDAG will be to seek out input from the scientific community and from within NIH,” Davis said. “The availability of tremendous expertise and the remarkable infrastructure at NIH will make our activities more robust and will allow us to tackle questions about brain doping that were not possible to address in the past. For example, new testing procedures will need to be developed and we will be able to bring the entire NIH infrastructure to this task.”
While “doping” is now accepted as a problem among athletes, it is less widely known that so-celled “brain doping” has been affecting the competitive balance in scientific research as well. It is for this reason that NIH is collaborating with the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA), which has led the fight against doping in athletics, to create the World Anti Brain Doping Authority (WABDA). “Because brain doping is not just an American problem,” said Richard Pound, the current Director of WADA and acting Director of WABDA until a permanent head can be found, “we are working with the European Union’s research funding agency, the European Commission Research, to make sure WABDA is effective.
NABDAG will be established within the NIH Office of Intramural Research and administered by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Additional support for the center will come from the NIH Office of the Director, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Center for Scientific Review (CSR). The research activities of NABDAG will take place on the NIH Bethesda campus. An additional focus of NABDAG will be to provide training opportunities for students and established scientists from developing countries and from minority groups in the United States.
Together with WABDA, NABDAG will work to develop the international rules for the use of performance enhancing drugs among scientists as well as testing and punishment procedures. Most importantly they will administer the World Anti Brain-Doping Code, a set of uniform anti-brain doping rules. The NIH and European Commission have formally adopted this Code for the conduct of all scientists which receive funding in any form (intramural or extramural) from these agencies. The Code includes regulations on which drugs are prohibited, what the recommended testing procedures should be, and what the punishments should be for positive tests. More information on the WABDA Code can be found at We note that the implementation will include testing of all NIH funded scientists both at the time they receive funding as well as at random times during the course of working on an NIH funded project. Testing will also be implemented at all NIH-funded or NIH-hosted events such as conferences and workshops and at grant review panels.
NIMH, NIDA, and CSR are among the 27 institutes and centers at the NIH, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services. The NIMH mission is to reduce the burden of mental and behavioral disorders through research on mind, brain, and behavior. More information is available at the NIMH website The National Institute on Drug Abuse is a component of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIDA supports most of the world’s research on the health aspects of drug abuse and addiction. The Institute carries out a large variety of programs to ensure the rapid dissemination of research information to inform policy and improve practice. Fact sheets on the health effects of drugs of abuse and further information on NIDA research can be found on the NIDA web site at The Center for Scientific Review organizes the peer review groups that evaluate the majority of grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health. CSR recruits about 18,000 outside scientific experts each year for its review groups. CSR also receives all NIH and many Public Health Service grant applications — about 80,000 a year — and assigns them to the appropriate NIH Institutes and Centers and PHS agencies. CSR’s primary goal is to see that NIH applications receive fair, independent, expert, and timely reviews that are free from inappropriate influences so NIH can fund the most promising research. For more information, visit
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation’s Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

That’s pretty harsh, don’t you think? And if egalitarianism is the goal, this will backfire due to inherent differences between people – an insomniac like me can certainly get more done than someone else who actually gets 8 hours of sleep every day. Back in the day I did experiments that lasted 24 hours, sometimes 36 hours, a couple of times even 72 hours straight. Not everyone’s physical and mental constitution would allow for such exertion. This would actually favor people like me. And the others? Let them eat Provigil!
Then, is the next step going to be to force morning people to work only in the morning and the evening types only in the evenings?
Will research that involves mental rotation of 3D objects be limited only to female researchers, or will the men have to be handicapped in some way, perhaps by having more than 0.08% blood alcohol so the 3D objects spin faster?
There is also a dangerous potential for going down the slippery slope. Will they start adding new chemicals to the list? In my long experiments, I was also aided by copious amounts of chocolate, Coca Cola and junk food from the vending machine (and who knows what chemicals are in those!). If NIH bans caffeine, the entire business of science in the USA will grind to a halt. No coffee, no data, sorry, sir.
Environment is known to affect our cognitive abilities as well. A factor that probably helped me the most during my long experiments was the radio tuned to a local station specializing in reruns of the Rush Limbaugh show. Our technician thought it was great that Rush was speaking the Truth to the Power, while I was inclined to scream but held back as I did not want to stress my birds and thus get unreliable data (hmmm, in retrospect, does listening to Rush affects a bird directly?). Will NIH ban radios? iPods? If it does try to completely control the environment, say Good Bye to all the field work, not to mention all the research going on up on the Space Station.
But all of this is besides the point – who ever said that science should be egalitarian!? Scientists are selected and self-selected for their intelligence, curiosity and overall geekiness. It is in the interest of scientific progress that scientists always do their best, so if they want to use brain enhancers, that’s fine, its their own choice and their own sacrifice for the greater good.
I think that NIH thinks of science like running. On an even playing field, the best runner will win. But why limit oneself to running speed. Give runners additional equipment and they go faster and soon enough you will have another exciting sport – NASCAR! I think of science as NASCAR! The spoils go to the one with the best brain enhancer! And next, we will have people racing their small personal spaceships, just like in Star Wars!
And that is just how it should be. The competition should not really be between scientists, but between Science and Nature (not talking about the journals here, as anyone knows there PLoS wins, of course). And Nature is powerful, autonomous from NIH, and as we all know, loves to play dirty. So, we should use everything we can come up with to speed ourselves up. As Nature tries to hide her secrets from us, we need to deploy all our armamentaria to snatch them from her.
And that is why we need Open Access. Just sayin’ (they pay me to do this, you know?). And I even did not have my coffee yet!
Hat-tip to Jonathan who has more.


Anna has more….
Blake puts it in proper context.
Chris has a good point.
Update 2: There is more from:
Genome Technology

15 responses to “NIH getting serious about brain doping

  1. Interrobang

    I for one welcome Our Neural Chernobyl… Like, wow, man.

  2. This brings to mind not only Big Brother, but also Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron.
    If Dr. Zerhouni wants a level playing field, he should ensure that all PIs have the same (hard) salaries, protected time for research, equipment and amount of lab space and the same number of equally qualified grad students and postdocs.

  3. Ha! I hope you all had fun with this yesterday. Now go back to your provigil…

  4. Hi – You do know this isn’t for real, right? (It sounded like a bit of an April Fool’s joke to me, so I checked with NIH/NIMH -they don’t know anything about it and say it’s a hoax.)

  5. Alla Katsnelson

    OK, i just revealed myself to be a gullible sucker… Ahh well…

  6. April Fooooools!

  7. Well-done, Coturnix… you got me, right enough!

  8. I can’t believe this is an April 1 joke. How can you live with yourself causing people like me to look into buying ways to cover up my brain doping

  9. As Frank Zappa once said, I’m proud to have played a part in this gigantic mass deception! 🙂

  10. Here is the follow up. Sometimes life mimics blogs….

  11. This joke was amazing.
    By the way, the results of the Nature survey are up (I discuss them here), and I think that the joke might turn somewhat to be reality soon, with the NIH really looking at this.

  12. This joke was amazing.
    By the way, the results of the Nature survey are up (I discuss them here), and I think that the joke might turn somewhat to be reality soon, with the NIH really looking at this.