Friday, August 01, 2008

Professor's Little Helper

This topic got tossed up in the blogosphere earlier this year, but all it got was a lukewarm discussion that acknowledge the issue, but had no real answers. Nature had an article entitled, Professor's Little Helper that explored the issue of scientists doping.

Granted, it was not anabolic steroids primarily, but various drugs intended to sharpen mental power. It did gain a reply from the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The gist of his argument was that it might be bad, or you might get addicted.

Now, I have no love of the problems substance abuse causes in our world. It would not hurt my feelings to see far tougher laws on alcohol and tobacco. But if we take the directors logic to the extreme, could we eat chocolate? There are chocolate addicts and it is not always good for us. That is not to say anything goes, or should, but we need a better rule for when it is wise.

And it will increasingly become an issue. It is already difficult, and only getting harder, to compete in athletic sports without doping, because it is an advantage. If it confers an advantage, even an ill-considered short-term one, it will become common among people who are serious about competeing.

From the NY Times,

In his book “Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution,” Francis Fukuyama raises the broader issue of performance enhancement: “The original purpose of medicine is to heal the sick, not turn healthy people into gods.” He and others point out that increased use of such drugs could raise the standard of what is considered “normal” performance and widen the gap between those who have access to the medications and those who don’t — and even erode the relationship between struggle and the building of character.

“Even though stimulants and other cognitive enhancers are intended for legitimate clinical use, history predicts that greater availability will lead to an increase in diversion, misuse and abuse,” wrote Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and James Swanson of the University of California at Irvine, in a letter to Nature. “Among high school students, abuse of prescription medications is second only to cannabis use.”

It is going to be come an issue, and we would do well to be ready for it. If cosmetic surgery is any indication, it will grow while scorned, until it becomes mainstream. Can we condemn these drugs without condemning all optional plastic surgery?

But does it make a difference? I would call this a side effect -

Jeffrey White, a graduate student in cell biology who has attended several institutions, said that those numbers sounded about right. “You can usually tell who’s using them because they can be angry, testy, hyperfocused, they don’t want to be bothered,” he said.

How much is detrimental, and what defines detrimental? Sure, taking steroids may harm the liver, but it may not. What if taking steroids enables you to put on muscle mass that you would not otherwise be able to do? Contrary to popular opinion, the largest group taking steroids is not athletes, it is WASPs who just don't have time to live in the gym, but want to look like it. Is that necessarily wrong?

What about musicians who use beta-blockers to decrease performance anxiety?

If we need a drug anytime we have a difficult problem, that has crossed the line to being a 'crutch'.

MindHacks, reminds us, that this is not a new issue - whether it was Erdős on amphetamines, or the fact that Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA while on LSD. Was it worth it? Sometimes it might be.

And just how do we differentiate between enhancing and dealing with natural decline?

For now, I have only tried St. John Wort and Ginkgo, with a melody of other herbs for concentration (depression) and I have to say, it made a difference. Melatonin does wonders for sleep, but also aggravates my arthritis. Exercise (cardio) probably does as much as those herbs, and has been proven to promote neurogenesis.

So for now, I am going to have to stick with "rarely". Because I suspect that there is a time and a place, though I don't think it is as often as others think.

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