NIH, EU move to ban “brain doping” in academia

To be a cutting-edge scientist, you can’t be a dummy. Now, it would seem, you can’t be a dope.

As many readers already know, the press has been paying close attention to the question of brain-enhancing chemicals among academic researchers — specifically, the ethics of “brain doping,” using compounds that were originally designed as treatment for neurological conditions in order to enhance performance: e.g., using the anti-narcolepsy drug Provigil (modafinil) to extend hours of wakefulness, or taking the anti-hyperactivity drug Adderall (amphetamine) to boost energy levels.

Here’s a quick summary of the most prominent articles from the recent mainstream press:

Now, in answer to these concerns, the NIH and its European equivalents have moved to block the use of brain-enhancing drugs among any individuals or institutions accepting federal money to fund their research. The effort is being spearheaded by a multinational agency, the World Anti-Brain Doping Agency (WABDA), which will “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.” The program will include random testing of all federally funded scientists, as described in this press release (from the WABDA website):

We note that the implementation will include testing of all NIH funded scientists both at the time that they receive finding as well at random times during the course of working on an NIH funded project. Testing will also be implemented at NIH funded or NIH hosted events such as conferences, workshops, and grant review panels.

For more information and analysis, check out this post by Jonathan Eisen, noted evolutionary biologist and the newest editor of PLoS Biology.

UPDATE: Bora Zivkovic has more at A Blog Around the Clock, as do Anna Kushnir and Martin Fenner at Nature Network.

I’m honestly a little torn about how to feel about this. One the one hand, I’m on the record opposing the use of pharmaceuticals to “edit out” human frailty (see the bit on “Paradise Engineering”). On the other hand, I believe that individuals have the right to do with their own bodies as they see fit, for good or ill, and I don’t think it’s the government’s place to attempt to control individual behavior at that level. There’s also a “slippery slope” argument: Today they’re coming for our off-label prescription drugs; tomorrow, will they ask us to turn in the tin of Trader Joe’s coffee in the break room fridge? Where does one draw the line?

Finally, on a more practical note: Athletes around the world — many of whom can barely read, much less understand the analytical chemistry underlying drug detection — have already been running circles around anti-doping agencies in sports. Does WABDA really think that the world’s biochemists won’t figure out how to beat a urine test?

UPDATE: April Fool, in case that wasn’t clear. Feel free to blame Jonathan.


  1. Oh great, now the clowns that run the “war on drugs” are now going to try to ban any drug that makes you smarter…what are they going to do when nano-enhancments like brain interfaces or nano-customising your body become availible in 30 years..(fur anybody?). It seems we are going to be regulated to death, it’s bad enough that we fund trillions of dollars per year on useless war crap and funding for the mprize has to go begging when we are so close to massive breakthorughs in longevity research, what are they going to do if and when a major breakthrough is obtained by brain doping? Are nobel canidates going to be tested for drug use??

  2. Don’t worry, I have this tea that you can drink that will fool the test. You just have to drink 8 cups within 24 hours of being tested. Warning! May cause short term memory loss, disorientation, and temporary IQ reduction. Not for use in children, Alzheimer’s patients, or postdocs with too much time on their hands.

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