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Doping for the brain

In sport, the thing is clear: doping often provides that crucial little bit more speed, strength or endurance. The pharmaceutical aids increase performance beyond what could be achieved through training alone or they help to compensate for a lack of form. But: whoever dopes is acting against the rules. If he is caught, he will be excluded from all competitions and in extreme cases his career as a competitive athlete will end forever. His performance is no longer recognized, he is considered an unfair "cheat".

The situation in the area of ​​“brain doping” is far less clear: Is it unfair if I take Ritalin or Modafinil before an exam in order to be able to work more focused? Or only when, thanks to neuro-enhancement, I make a better impression at an interview and thereby snatch the job from under the nose of a competitor?

If everyone dope, the advantage disappears ... © in the public domain

A zero-sum game

For the physician and psychologist Stefan Schleim from the University of Groningen, fairness is violated at the latest when someone overtakes me not because of his ability, but because of the income from performance-enhancing agents that are not available to everyone in the competition. He compares brain doping to the zero-sum game of the prisoner's dilemma:

“The user of the brain doping depends on the competitor's decision: If he also takes the pills, neither of them has an advantage, only disadvantages. The effectiveness of psycho-enhancement is essentially based on an unequal situation in which only I improve my performance, but not the other and is therefore essentially unjust. ”The consequence of this imbalance would ultimately be a cognitive arms race.

Brain doping only for the rich?

The question of the fairness of neuro-enhancement also has a social aspect: "If cognitive enhancements are expensive, they could become a domain of the rich and thus strengthen the educational advantages that they already have", explain the authors of the 2008 published " Nature ”commentary. Those who come from less privileged parents and are therefore already disadvantaged in the education system - as PISA and other studies document - would then also be at a disadvantage here.

At the moment, the remedies that are said to have a positive effect on brain performance are only approved for special clinical pictures and are only paid for by the health insurance companies in these cases. So-called off-label use, use for a clinical picture other than the officially approved, is not accepted, use on healthy people is prohibited. Anyone who still wants one of these prescription drugs therefore either needs a well-meaning or easily deceived doctor or has to resort to illegal and expensive sources.

Equalizer or domain of the rich? © SXC

... or as a social equalizer?

The danger of “optimization only for the rich” is therefore obvious and is also conceded by the proponents of a non-restrictive use of such resources. However, according to some, state control and guidance could even open up opportunities for targeted support for disadvantaged social classes: "The selective use of neuro-enhancers among people with a lower intellectual capacity or disadvantaged living conditions who cannot afford additional training, could improve the educational opportunities for this group ”, states a discussion paper published in 2007 by the British Medical Association.

A group of seven German researchers, who published a joint memorandum on the subject of “The Optimized Brain” at the end of 2009, agrees: “Why, one might ask, does justice not, conversely, dictate the broad and generously subsidized dissemination of neuro-enhancement- Products especially among members of the disadvantaged classes, ”they ask provocatively. The authors of the “Nature” commentary from 2008 are also in favor of subsidized distribution of such funds: “You could avoid this inequality by giving every exam participant free access to cognitive enhancers - similar to what some schools do today during the exam week Make available. "

However, if one day there actually is a “neuro-enhancer for everyone”, then this immediately raises the next problem.

Nadja Podbregar
Status: 06/17/2011