Timeline: Within 3 Years
BACKGROUND: At the 2003 Track and Field World Championships in France, American sprinter Kelli White shaved a whopping second and a half off her 100- and 200-meter race times and swept the races. White's postrace blood tests, however, turned up higher-than-allowed levels of modafinil, a prescription anti-narcolepsy stimulant that helped her jump out of the blocks and sprint down the track faster. Modafinil is but one of a dozen or so âneural enhancersâ currently available in pharmacies that scientists say could enhance athletic performance. Popping FDA-approved Parkinson's meds and antidepressants might not seem like cheating, but studies suggest that a positive mental attitude improves mental focus, contributing to superior performance. Various antidepressants boost dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin levels. For a healthy athlete, that extra serotonin may foster a more positive mood, while both dopamine and norepinephrine seem to enhance motor control and muscle reaction timeâan edge in any sport.
WHERE IT'S AT: âWithin the next few years, we'll see the second generation of these drugs,â says Mark Gordon, an endocrinologist in Los Angeles. âLike all second-generation drugs, they will be stronger, longer-lasting, and have fewer side effects.â The pharmaceutical industry makes a fortune on these drugs, so nearly every major company has a brain booster or two in the works.
DETECTION: Most governing bodies allow exemptions for athletes with diagnosed conditions. Scientists can detect neurochemicals in blood and urine samples, but a brain-tissue biopsy is the only way to determine if athletes are abusing the drugs.
Left: Brain stimulants helped Kelli White [red] race to gold.