Amateur athletes are taking advantage of legal, prescribed medicine in order to enhance their cognitive function, according to researchers in Germany.

Though many associate performance-enhancers with substances such as steroids, growth hormones and of course blood doping, improvements in cognitive function can also have a significant impact on performance.

Researchers believe that these so-called ‘smart drugs’ are being widely used to enhance mental functions outside the patient groups they have been designed to help, and are becoming more popular because many of the substances aren’t banned.

The study, published in the journal Plos One, surveyed 3,000 triathletes who were taking part in events in Germany. They were asked whether they had used physical or brain enhancing substances over the past 12 months.

Thirteen per cent said they had taken drugs including EPO, steroids or growth hormones, while 15.1 per cent said they had used brain enhancements substances such as amphet-amines and modafinil — a medicine used to treat the sleep disorder narcolepsy and which can also help people stay awake, improve alertness and concentration.

The researchers stated that cognitive enhancement may be affecting the attitudes of some of these amateur sports participants. Athletes are aware that physical doping is forbidden and drug-testing is common, whereas there is little threat of sanctions for those using cognitive substances.

“On the cognitive level, we don’t know enough about these substances. Is there a hyper performance effect?” asks Professor Perikles Simon, one of the authors of the study. “What we know is that if you are a patient you are going to perform better, but if you are already a high-level performer, we don’t know if there is an effect. That’s the big question.”

There is another question: what effect do these drugs have on those who don’t suffer from the conditions they’re designed to treat?