Doping has been around sports for years and stars such as Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez continue to capture the public’s imagination. But the future of doping may be radically different. So-called smart drugs and cosmetic neurology present a new frontier in performance enhancement along with new ethical considerations. In an April episode of SCI TV, accomplished neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee of Pennsylvania Hospital and the University of Pennsylvania talks about the ethics and dangers of smart drugs and other enhancements in sports.

Neuroscience and Sports

Anjan Chatterjee studies the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and sports, looking at how developments in our understanding of the brain can impact performance. He focuses on two main questions around performance enhancement.

“What are we able to do as far as enhancing our abilities, and what are the potential ethical implications?”

Ethics of Enhanced Performance?

Traditional methods of improving performance are simple yet nuanced: physical training, enough rest and proper nutrition. Drugs such as steroids, EPO and stimulants have been used for years to gain an edge, and the arms race between users and enforcement is ongoing.

Yet as a culture, some types of enhancement we seem to accept as permissible. Beta blockers are used by musicians, public speakers and golfers to reduce tremors and anxiety. Retinal surgery is used by baseball players and others to improve vision better than 20/20.

“There is a long tradition of different types of doping,” Chatterjee said. “Where you draw the line on that seems to be a cultural thing. At the end of the day whether that bears out on a principled account is not so clear.”

The Future: Smart Drugs

The future of performance enhancement may not involve traditional drugs at all. Smart drugs and non-invasive brain stimulation, which Chatterjee calls “cosmetic neurology,” are in the early stages of helping people learn certain tasks quicker.

Smart drugs or cosmetic neurology work by using devices on the skull to inhibit or stimulate parts of the brain via magnetic pulses or direct current stimulation. This can be beneficial if used while trying to learn a task. Lab studies have shown participants were quicker at learning certain motor skills than their control counterparts, and showed improved function up to three months later.

“It’s not so difficult to conceive that this could become part of people’s training regimens,” Chatterjee said.

No Way to Detect

Since smart drugs and cosmetic neurology have no signal or biological marker, there is no way to detect them and likely wouldn’t be.

“If it helps (performance) and there is no way to detect it, how do we deal with that?” Chatterjee said. “If you can’t enforce it, if you can’t govern it, how do we as a sports culture address that?”
These enhancements will continue to test the boundaries of ethics, safety and enforcement.