Friday, August 30, 2013

Is caffeine a PED for scientists?

Drugs are bad for you. Drugs are good for you. These are among the many mixed messages that we see every day. Take antibiotics, when needed, following the full protocol and it helps to cure you. That's good. Take antibiotics often and irregularly and it helps create drug-resistant strains. That's bad. Psychoactive drugs are mostly illegal, but they're handed out like candy after surgeries (including just after delivery.) And, of course, medicinal or pharmaceutical chemistry is successful because it takes advantage of the power of synthetic chemistry to make increasingly better drugs available more broadly. There's also the layer of performance enhancement drugs (PEDs.) Vitamins and other naturally occurring dietary supplements are o.k. Low-dosage anti-inflammatories—like acetaminophen—that aid in post performance recovery are o.k. But growth hormones are not. (Yet apparently o.k. if fed to livestock.) Clearly the line between a banned drug and an acceptable one is fuzzy, and its resolution requires some ethical deliberation.

Is caffeine a PED? In the Information Age, mental performance is critical to many job functions.  For scientists, it could mean the difference between making a grant deadline or not, solving a structure, or submitting a paper before your competitors do. So what's wrong with drinking a little extra coffee on a given day in order to be a little sharper? Indeed, many people drink coffee routinely every day, and it's rarely banned. (The exception to prove the rule being the dictum from the Latter-Day Saints that drinking hot drinks, such as coffee, is unhealthy.) You could argue that intent is a determining factor in the sense that it's a PED if you consume it too enhance performance, as in for example to stay awake later or to wake up in the morning?! But isn't that just the way that most people consume caffeine? I drink three double espresso's/day. That's approximately 350mg of caffeine and fortunately well below my LD50 of approximately 15 grams. It's legal, it's likely a PED, but I'm not giving it up!


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