Many Academics Use Drugs to Enhance Their Brain Power, Survey Suggests

April 10, 2008

College students have long resorted to popping Ritalin and other stimulants to give themselves a mental leg up, but an informal survey by Nature magazine reveals that many science professionals are also taking drugs for the express purpose of improving their cognitive capacities.

In an online survey of 1,400 readers, Nature found that 20 percent had taken pharmaceuticals for the nonmedical purpose of improving their concentration, focus, and memory. Most of the people who responded to the survey were involved in science, engineering, or education. “The numbers suggest a significant amount of drug-taking among academics,” the magazine said.

The survey focused on three drugs: Ritalin, the anti-sleep drug Provigil, and beta blockers (which are used to treat cardiac conditions but can also reduce anxiety). Over 60 percent of the people who admitted using the drugs for cognitive reasons said they used Ritalin, while 44 percent said they used Provigil, which is known generically as modafinil. Some 15 percent said they used beta blockers.

Respondents who said they used such drugs were evenly split between people who said they took them daily, weekly, monthly, and once a year. Nine out of 10 of those respondents said they used the medications to improve concentration and attention. Many said they took them to enhance memory, problem-solving, and planning.

The numbers revealed by the survey show that “scientists are not immune to substance abuse,” said Wilson M. Compton, director of the division of epidemiology, services, and prevention at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In an interview with The Chronicle, Dr. Compton said, “This is an example where you think people who are highly educated and knowledgeable might know better, and that’s not necessarily the case.”

Because the survey was not a scientific study, he said, it would be impossible to draw wider conclusions about how many people inside or outside academe actually use such drugs.

Dr. Compton was most concerned by the high percentage of people who said they were taking Ritalin, which can be addictive. “The attitude toward these drugs indicated by this survey is that people see them as being safe and not a concern,” he said. “That’s a problem when these are potentially addictive and can be associated with complications.”

Provigil is less well-known than Ritalin, and Dr. Compton said it was not known whether it was addictive. The drug helps people stay awake and is most often prescribed for treating narcolepsy and other sleep disorders.

Nature decided to conduct its survey as a follow-up to a commentary late last year by two scientists who reported that several colleagues were using Provigil to work longer hours and improve their concentration. In an article in The Chronicle in December, Martha J. Farah, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, said that many academics used Provigil to alleviate the symptoms of jet lag when attending conferences overseas. She said she had obtained a prescription for that purpose and had used it twice on trips. “I found myself marveling at just how clearheaded and comfortable I felt,” she said.

According to Dr. Compton, academics generally use beta blockers for different purposes, such as to counteract the rapid heart beat and hand tremors that some people experience when giving public talks. —Richard Monastersky