Department of Self-Improvement

Steroids for your brain

There were no reported doping cases at the other major competition held
in Athens this summer, the 2004 International Mathematical Olympiad, but clean matchups between mathletes may soon be endangered. Anjan Chatterjee, a physician at the University of Pennsylvania, warns that we are entering the era of cosmetic neurology, when kids will swallow memory-boosting pills to cram for the SATs and pilots will regularly take drugs to make them more alert in emergency situations.

In a paper published in the September issue of the journal Neurology, Chatterjee argues that drugs now used to treat the sick will soon become available to the healthy. There is a precedent in human erythropoietin, or EPO, a substance approved to treat anemia but abused by long-distance athletes hoping to boost endurance.

Chatterjee isn't the first to point toward this drug-altered future, but until recently, doctors have been absent from the debate. The problem is that they're the ones who will have the power to prescribe these enhancement drugs to otherwise healthy patients. To kick-start the conversation among his peers, Chatterjee offers a series of questions at the end of his paper. They are relevant for the general population too, so we posted one on our Web site. When asked if they would give their child a medication with minimal side effects prior to a piano lesson to help him/her learn better, 47 percent of the 178
respondents acknowledged that they would. While Chatterjee mulls his own stance, his colleagues are telling him to drop research and go for the quick buck. "My friends tell me I should give up this stuff and open
a brain spa," he says.