Brain doping – use of smart drugs in sport

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A study was published late last year in the open access journal PlosOne on ‘cognitive doping’ in triathlon.  That was a new phrase for me so I thought it was worth a bit of a look.


The paper, titled ‘Associations between Physical and Cognitive Doping – A Cross-Sectional Study in 2.997 Triathletes‘ set out, via questionnaire, to determine the rate of drug use amongst amateur triathletes competing at events in Germany.  The authors made a distinction between the ‘cognitive’ and ‘physical’ drugs or methods, which they then split into enhancement and doping. Any drug or substance used for ‘enhancement’ is not  a banned drug on the WADA list whereas ‘doping’ compounds are strictly illicit in sport.  They received an impressive 99.7 % response rate for the questionnaire with 2987 people actually completing it.


© Winterling | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

So what do they mean by cognitive doping or enhancement?

Most people would probably understand the use of steroids or EPO in sport (certainly if you have read other posts here!), these are defined as ‘physical’. For cognitive the description is any drug or supplement used to enhance mood, memory, attention or learning performance.  I talked a little about ‘smart drugs’ in an article in July last year when it was suggested that students should be tested prior to exams.  Many smart drugs, such as modafinil and methylphenidate are actually banned in sport so fall under the ‘doping’ banner. Also banned and included in the ‘cognitive’ doping are ‘antidepressants’, cocaine and beta blockers.  Caffeinated drinks are included as a legal cognitive drug whereas caffeine tablets are classed as doping in this study. With caffeine they argue that as you have to buy caffeine tablets from a pharmacy in Germany that is very different from canned energy drink.

This is where I start having problems with this paper – the effects of many of these drugs are not simply split into brain enhancement and bodily enhancement.  Cocaine, for instance, may give you some additional bravado or confidence whilst also having a stimulant effect on the central nervous system which would potentially give physical improvements.  Cocaine is classed as a stimulant by WADA and is banned in competition.  Beta blockers are banned in some sports, due to their ability to reduce stress which has physical manifestation in reducing tremors.  You can see how this is useful in the sports beta blockers are banned in – such as archery, snooker and some skiing.


The results from the survey show a surprisingly high (to me) number of amateur athletes use some form of ‘doping or enhancement’.  Around 14 % and 6 % of athletes reported physical or cognitive enhancement (ie freely available drugs or supplements) respectively in the prior twelve months.  As for the doping stats they report 13 % and 15  % respectively for physical and cognitive.  The paper then goes into lots of statistics to try and show causality or linkages with variables such as body mass index and the use of training plans. Leaving aside these stats and their hunt for evidence of a ‘gateway effect’ into doping, the numbers presented are a surprise.  Thirteen percent of amateur athletes competing in triathlon have admitted using some form of physical doping whilst a portion of those 15 % in the ‘cognitive’ doping area may also have committed offence against the WADA code.  I’m not a statistician so I cannot really pick apart their data set.  It seems the values are not from straight forward questions though but a ‘randomised response technique’ survey, where the data has to be extrapolated from various assumptions.


Are significant numbers of athletes using cognitive or physical enhancers?  This survey would suggest yes. The sport of triathlon is not one for the poor – the gear is very important  – bikes, wetsuits etc are expensive items.  Those who compete in the sport may be more tempted to use all that is available to them including drugs. There have been some cases of amateur triathletes failing tests and facing bans (and a number of professionals too).  I have a lot of this data and will post it in the future.

As for smart/cognitive drugs – as long as caffeine is included in either of these calculations it is impossible to tell is others are being used.  I would have liked to see caffeine removed. Caffeine is so prevalent in society in general and particularly in athletes who are well aware of the positive effects on performance.

Thanks for reading, I’m off for a coffee!

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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.