For years there’s been anecdotal evidence, and a couple surveys, suggesting growing use of drugs like Ritalin and Provigil by undergraduates looking to get an edge over the competition. Now, some faculty are starting to claim that professors who study the brain have started doing it, too:

While caffeine reigns as the supreme drug of the professoriate, some university faculty members have started popping “smart” pills to enhance their mental energy and ability to work long hours, according to two University of Cambridge scientists.

In a commentary published in the journal Nature last month, Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir revealed the results of their informal survey of a handful of colleagues who study drugs that help people perform better mentally….

But brain boosting raises hackles in some parts of academe. “It smells to me a lot like taking steroids for physical prowess,” said Barbara Prudhomme White, an associate professor of occupational therapy at the University of New Hampshire, who has studied the abuse of Ritalin by college students. After recent revelations about the use of performance-enhancing drugs in professional baseball, she sees parallels between athletes and assistant professors. “You’re expected to publish and teach, and the stakes are high. So young professors have to work their tails off to get that golden nugget of tenure.”

The poll was not meant to be a comprehensive study, said Ms. Morein-Zamir, a research associate at Cambridge. Rather, the essay, “Professor’s Little Helper,” was intended to provoke a public discussion of whether society in general, and universities in particular, should regulate the use of available compounds and medications that might be developed in the future. “If a drug helps you be more alert but also make better decisions, how does society feel about that?” she asked.

The essay, published in Nature, is a rewardingly geeky piece that includes a long discussion of how these drugs work, and what dangers exist in their use.

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