Dope your way to an A (or C)

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It was the students in my UT course on Pharmacology and Human Enhancements who gave me the news back in 2004. UT students were using a lot of Ritalin and Adderall to stay awake and improve their mental focus while studying. And the anecdotal evidence was compelling: Many students were convinced that these amphetamine-like stimulants would get them better grades and improve their future career opportunities. Over the past decade, these “study drugs” have become common on American campuses as a form of academic doping.

Like the athletic doping about which we have heard so much in recent years, today’s “brain doping” has a long history. Benzedrine was first produced in 1932. By the end of that decade, students and truck drivers were pioneering the use of amphetamines as workplace doping drugs to stay awake. Hyped claims about the intellectual benefits of Benzedrine use appeared in scientific journals at this time.

The world today presents a very different environment for drug use than that of the 1930s. Today’s younger generation was born into an “Age of Enhancements” that took off during the 1990s and is still gaining momentum. The “Viagra Era,” as I call it, began when most UT students were still in elementary school. Prozac became a famous drug when most of today’s college students were infants; today, its reputation as a personality-transforming wonder drug is long gone.

These days, testosterone enhancement is being promoted on television like suntan lotion, when in fact it’s a powerful synthetic hormone. The mainstreaming of Botox and a variety of plastic surgeries must seem perfectly normal to young people. Small wonder that many 21st-century students are receptive to claims that their (illegal) off-label use of stimulants is an enhancement to which they are entitled in a fiercely competitive world.

Being born into a world of familiar enhancement procedures makes drugs seem routine. But while various enhancements have become common, they often cause problems. The long-term effects of testosterone and growth hormone “therapy” are unknown. Ten years ago, many physicians and their female patients were shocked to learn that estrogen replacement therapy was less benign than it had been assumed to be.

The credulous talk one hears today about “cognitive enhancements” naïvely assumes that whichever cognitive effects are achieved will be advantageous ones.  However, one problem with doping procedures in general is the likelihood of paying some kind of “physiological penalty” for attempting to enhance the human organism.

According to  Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, cognitive psychologists “have found that there is a trade-off between attentional focus and creativity.” That would seem a high price to pay if intellectual development is your goal. Psychotropic drugs can also cause strange and unexpected reactions in those who take them. For some, this is a form of entertainment. But people should not expect predictable benefits from a pill.

The ultimate physiological penalty will be paid by stimulant-consuming students with cardiovascular risk factors that trigger life-threatening heart arrhythmias. For this reason, students who give or sell off-label stimulants to their friends should ask them whether their cardiologists have cleared them to take these drugs. There is a good medical reason that these private drug transactions are against the law.

Study dopers may also find themselves unsure of what they can accomplish without the effect provided by the drug. As one student put it, she was more comfortable knowing that “my intellect works quite well on its own.”

The available data say that most college students do not engage in academic doping. Interestingly, there have been few audible protests against the use of study drugs. What we have heard instead has been a great deal of concerned discussion with no resolution in sight. Wesleyan University in Connecticut has banned study drugs, but the fact is that university administrators really have no idea about what to do. Like the police chiefs and military commanders who cannot prevent a certain amount of steroid use in the ranks, academic leaders are not in a position to enforce a prohibition of the doping drugs that circulate on their campuses.

There is no point in my pretending to know all of the consequences of drug use. Thirty years ago, ignorant physicians were telling athletes that anabolic steroids didn’t work, and that cost them their credibility for a long time.  Similarly, it would be foolish to deny that some people, and perhaps many people, have been getting some sort of quantifiable, and even useful, effects from using study drugs.

We can’t blame students for being confused by the societal enhancements predicament in which they have landed. A conclusion to the epic struggle between the enhancements boom and the prohibition mentality that is still sending people to prison for possessing marijuana is nowhere in sight.

What I hope is that students who practice study doping will do what students are supposed to be learning to do, which is to think hard about the important issues they encounter in life. Why have I never been interested in experimenting with doping? Because I am still exploring the brain I was born with.

John Hoberman is a professor of Germanic studies at UT.