Had any brain-altering stimulants today?

Marketplace Staff May 23, 2006


MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Performance enhancing drugs. You normally think sports when you hear the term. But commentator Peter Coy says their use is on the rise in the workplace.

PETER COY: Would you be shocked to learn that millions of American workers are addicted to a powerful stimulant called 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine? Like cocaine and heroin, it gives pleasure by raising the level of dopamine in the brain. Many people admit they can barely function on the job without it. 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine is better known as. . . caffeine.

Every coffee drinker knows that there’s nothing new about the existence of performance-enhancing drugs in the workplace. What is new is the selection of drugs that are becoming available.

In contrast to caffeine, the new drugs are narrowly targeted. They solve specific problems like anxiety, poor concentration and forgetfulness. In some ways this is a real advance.

Trouble is, people who take these drugs could gain an important advantage in the workplace over people who can’t afford them or don’t like the idea of messing with their own brains.

You can see where we’re headed by looking at some of the drugs that people already abuse.

One is Ritalin. For adults without ADHD, it’s a stimulant that helps them focus on their work. Abusers call Ritalin “Vitamin R” or “the Smart Drug.” Then there’s Provigil, a narcolepsy treatment that many healthy people take as a boss’s little helper. Now, more powerful brain drugs are being developed to treat Alzheimer’s disease. It’s almost inevitable that these too will find their way into the working world, where people with no hint of Alzheimer’s will take them for a competitive edge.

Another drug of choice for hard-charging executives is — believe it or not — beta blockers.

These drugs are often given to people after heart attacks to slow down the heart and lower blood pressure. But beta blockers also decrease stress and help eliminate panic and fear.

A study at Oxford University found that people on beta blockers have cooler heads when making financial decisions. Some psychiatrists think many executives who don’t actually need beta blockers are wangling prescriptions for them to get a leg up on the competition.

In a 2003 book called The Posthuman Future, political scientist Francis Fukuyama worried that some people could gain almost superhuman powers, ending the natural equality that he calls the foundation for human rights.

Me? I don’t mind butting heads with guys who use Rogaine or steroids or even 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine. But when people start souping up their brains with drugs designed to fight heart disease, brain disease and mental illness, I say that’s going too far.

Peter Coy is an Economics Editor of BusinessWeek magazine.

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