Medicolegal Issues

Pharmacologic performance enhancement: What to consider before prescribing

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“When you raced, was it possible to perform
without doping?”

“That depends on which races you wanted
to win. The Tour de France? No. Impossible
to win without doping. Because the Tour is a
test of endurance where oxygen is decisive.”
– Lance Armstrong, Le Monde interview
(June 28, 2013)



Performance enhancement in sports (“doping”) dates back to Ancient Greece. This was an era when Olympic athletes would attempt to improve their physical performance by consuming magic potions, herbal medications, and even exotic meats such as sheep testicles—a delicacy high in testosterone. Advances in medical and pharmaceutical technologies have increased both the range of enhancement agents available and their efficacy, leading to the development of anti-doping agencies and routine screening for doping in athletics. This has led to the renouncement of titles, medals, and financial sponsorship of athletes found to have been using prohibited substances during competition.

While doping in elite athletes often forms the nidus of media attention, the pressure to compete and perform at, or even beyond, one’s potential extends into many facets of today’s achievementfocused society. In the face of these pressures, individuals are increasingly seeking medications to enhance their performance across numerous domains, including cognitive, athletic, and artistic endeavors. Medication classes used to enhance performance include stimulants, which increase attention, executive function, and energy; cholinesterase inhibitors, which may ameliorate age-related memory decline; and beta-blockers, which decrease physiologic symptoms of anxiety and have been demonstrated to be beneficial for musical performance.1 Fifty-three percent of college athletes report using prescription medications to enhance athletic performance,2 and most college students who take stimulants without a prescription use them to study (84%) or stay awake (51%).3

Pharmacologic performance enhancement is the use of medications by healthy individuals to improve function in the absence of mental illness. Psychiatrists are increasingly finding themselves in the controversial position of “gatekeeper” of these medications for enhancement purposes. In this article we:

  • outline arguments that support the use of psychopharmacology for performance enhancement, as well as some serious concerns with this practice
  • discuss special considerations for pediatric populations and the risk of malpractice when prescribing for performance enhancement
  • offer practice guidelines for approaching requests for psychopharmacologic performance enhancement.

Performance enhancement: The wave of the future?

The ethical principle that supports providing medication for performance enhancement is beneficence, the promotion of the patient’s well-being. In other words, it is a physician’s duty to help his or her patient in need. Individuals seeking performance enhancement typically present with suffering, and the principle of beneficence would call upon the psychiatrist to help ameliorate that suffering. Furthermore, patients who seek performance enhancement may present with impairing “subsyndromal” psychiatric symptoms (for example, low-grade attentional difficulty that occurs only in one setting), which, even if they do not rise to the threshold of a DSM diagnosis, may improve with psychiatric medications.

Using medical knowledge and skills beyond the traditional physician duty to diagnose and treat medical conditions is not unprecedented (eg, when surgeons perform cosmetic enhancement). Might elective enhancement of cognition and psychological performance through the judicious use of medication be part of the future of psychiatry? If cognitive and emotional enhancement becomes a more widely accepted standard of care, might this increase both individual and societal innovation and productivity?

Dilemma: Cautions against performance enhancement

One of the major cautions against prescribing psychotropics for the purpose of performance enhancement is the lack of clearly supported efficacy. Psychiatric medications generally are studied in individuals who meet criteria for mental illness, and they are FDA-approved for use in ill persons. It may be erroneous to extrapolate that a medication that improves symptoms in a patient with an illness would achieve the same target effect in a healthy individual. For example, data on whether stimulants provide neurocognitive enhancement in healthy individuals without attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is mixed, and these agents may even promote risky behavior in healthy controls.4 Furthermore, dopamine agonism may compress cognitive performance in both directions,5 as it has been observed that methylphenidate improves executive function in healthy controls, but is less beneficial for those with strong executive function at baseline.6

In the face of unclear benefit, it is particularly important to consider the risk of medications used for performance enhancement. Pharmacologic performance enhancement in individuals without psychopathology can be considered an “elective” intervention, for which individuals typically tolerate less risk. Physical risks, including medication-related adverse effects, must be considered, particularly in settings where there may be temptation to use more than prescribed, or to divert medication to others who may use it without medical monitoring. In addition to physical harm, there may be psychological harm associated with prescribing performance enhancers, such as pathologizing variants of “normal,” diminishing one’s sense of self-efficacy, or decreasing one’s ability to bear failure.

Continue to: Finally, there are ethical quandaries


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