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Shocking research by Nature has revealed that many of the world's boffins are routinely taking psychoactive drugs to boost their brain power.

An "informal survey" by the leading research rag has uncovered an epidemic of drug use in scientific circles. One in five respondents to the survey reported they had used cognition-enhancing prescription drugs for non-medical reasons.

Specifically, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) drug Ritalin, sleep medication Provigil, and beta blocking heart drugs are all reportedly guzzled to improve focus, concentration, and memory. More than one third had obtained their fix from an internet pharmacy. All but one of the 14 British scientists who responded ordered online.

The enhanced eggheads reported side effects including sleeplessness, jitteriness, anxiety, and headaches.

But the poll also revealed that most boffins have no problem with their competitors obtaining a chemical advantage. Four in five said healthy adults should be allowed to turbo charge their own brain if they want to.

Boffinry's - and indeed the public's - fancy for personal enhancement is nothing new, of course.

In 2006, Sir David King, then the UK government's top scientific advisor, briefed ministers at Downing Street on what was dubbed "cosmetic neurology". He warned that regulators will have to be ready for an explosion in public interest in the concept over the next 20 years.

In November, the British Medical Association attempted to kickstart debate on the ethics around mental meddling. "It should be remembered that people are willing to endure major surgery to enhance their visual appearance, so they may be willing to do so to improve their cognitive ability as well, if the techniques prove to be effective," the doctors' group said.

Read Nature's own report on its findings here. And step away from the coffee machine. ®

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