Steroids are wrong for athletes, but okay for scientists. Or pilots. Or students cramming for an exam or would-be job applicants hoping to do well in an interview. Or maybe just about anybody who is really, really busy. Like your doctor.
That's the argument made by seven researchers in a paper published in the prestigious journal Nature over the weekend.
Stanford University law professor Henry Greely, one of the authors, said the moral repugnance that is often focused on steroid use in sports should not be applied to drugs meant to enhance mental capacity.
"Better-working brains produce things of more lasting value than longer home runs."
Acknowledging that thorny ethical and medical questions remain to be addressed, pharmaceutical enhancement of natural mental gifts is a trend to be welcomed, the seven co-authors from Harvard, Stanford and other prestigious institutions said.
"We call for a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs. ... From assembly line workers to surgeons, many different kinds of employee may benefit from enhancement and want access to it, yet they may also need protection from the pressure to enhance."
At least two of the co-authors are consultants for pharmaceutical companies.
Greely said the group wanted to debunk arguments that drug enhancement is immoral, compared with other means of strengthening mental performance, such as a strong coffee or an expensive tutor.
"Society shouldn't reject them just because they're pharmaceutical enhancements."
Leigh Turnerof the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics, and formerly of the University of Toronto's Joint Centre for Bioethics, was unconvinced.
"It's a nice puff piece for selling medications for people who don't have an illness of any kind."
Other ethicists have raised concerns that people may be coerced -- directly or indirectly -- into taking performance enhancing drugs.
George Annas, who heads the health law and bioethics program at Boston University, said the authors present an idyllic view of brain-modulating drugs that emphasizes the potential upside that could lead to wide-spread usage before the safety or side effects of such drugs are fully understood.
"The NIH (National Institutes of Health) is not going to fund this research. If the drug companies don't fund it, it's not going to get done."
The commentary cites a 2001 survey of about 11,000 American college students that found 4 per cent had used prescription stimulants illegally in the prior year. But at some colleges, the figure was as high as 25 per cent. "