Doping is a no-no in sports, but there's no rule against it in the classroom or on the job—and that's the way it should stay, doctors and ethicists write in a new commentary urging the safe use of medicines normally prescribed for patients with attention disorders but increasingly used off-label by healthy folks seeking an edge.

"We call for a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs," the authors write in this week's Nature. "Cognitive-enhancing drugs seem morally equivalent to other, more familiar enhancements" like a good night's sleep, exercise and a healthy diet, they say.

In people with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), stimulants including Adderall and Ritalin improve attention, memory and control of disinhibitions. But the drugs' effect on the catecholamine system, which regulates stress hormones, benefits everyone, as many a soldier and student have found. Soldiers are offered stimulants to keep them alert, the commentary notes, and students down coffee or caffeine-rich Red Bull to stay awake and cram; almost 7 percent of U.S. college students have popped stimulants to focus their studying. A new drug prescribed to people with sleep disorders that cause fatigue, Provigil, sometimes is used to conquer jet lag. Even musicians sometimes use the heart drugs beta blockers to combat stage fright.

Stimulants can cause heart irregularities, dizziness, nervousness and restlessness. Critics argue that the use of stimulants for cognitive enhancement in people who are healthy amounts to cheating, and some imply that the commentary amounts to unjustified endorsement of lifestyle drugs. "It's a nice puff piece for selling medications for people who don't have an illness of any kind," Leigh Turner of the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics told the Associated Press.

But so long as they're safe and people — especially kids — aren’t forced to take them, the drugs should be allowed, according to the new commentary.
"All new technologies are at first resisted, even the typewriter," co-author Michael Gazzaniga tells Technology Today. "There is somehow a sense one is cheating the system. Well, so is chemotherapy. When all of these new technologies are used in moderation and the right social context, they are a good.

"Most of these drugs are used in spurts when huge mental demands are called for. They are not for everyday mental routines," he added. "Having said that, I think it is a fair concern to make sure people don't become dependent on them as a way of life. Working above one's pay grade in the end has tremendous costs."

Image by iStockphoto/Tomaz Levstek