Some academics use ‘smart drugs' to sharpen
their performance. Tony Tysome explores the issues
Feeling under intense pressure to improve your performance at work? Fatigued by the growing demands of a 24/7 society? These are occupational hazards affecting many of today's academics.
But the suggestion that an individual's performance can be improved, and tiredness overcome, simply by popping a pill can shock even those academics who have studied the effects of so-called smart drugs.
Barbara Sahakian, professor of neuropsychology at Cambridge University, was taken aback when a colleague offered her a dose of Modafinil – a “wakefulness” drug prescribed to people suffering from various sleep disorders – as she arrived in the US, jet-lagged, to present a paper at a conference.
Having discovered in her own research how the memory and concentration of healthy people can be improved with the use of Modafinil, Professor Sahakian knew that the drug could potentially help her.
As a matter of principle, she declined the offer. But the incident, along with a similar one at a conference in the Netherlands, made her realise how smart drugs are gaining currency in the global academic community.
She said: “I was intrigued to realise that there are academics who take them on a regular basis. It appears to herald the use of these drugs more generally by people who want something to enhance their academic performance.”
The benefits and side-effects of various drugs derived from methylphenidate, commonly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), have been well documented since the 1960s. More recently, research in the US into the most well-known brand, Ritalin, has found it being used by schoolchildren and undergraduates to improve their levels and periods of concentration and help them perform better in exams.
Debate over the safety, ethics and practicalities of using smart drugs such as Ritalin to enhance academic performance has intensified as a new generation of drugs that appear to have few if any serious side-effects have come on to the market. As well as Modafinil, the latest developments include other ampakines – developed to treat conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, but also found to generally improve cognitive functions including learning and memory.
Arguments by some academics that taking these drugs is no worse than downing several cups of strong coffee have been countered by concerns that children or employees could be coerced into taking them in an increasingly results-driven culture in schools and the workplace. There are also warnings that some of these drugs are so new that the long-term side-effects are not known.
Paul Cooper, professor of education at Leicester University, who has been studying ADHD for the past 13 years. He said he has anecdotal evidence of parents obtaining Ritalin over the internet to give to their children without prescription.
He sees this as part of what he calls the “democratisation of science”, which is helping to spread the use of smart drugs. Availability, combined with performance pressures in today's society, make it almost inevitable that some academics and students will turn to using them, he suggested.
“If you look at our culture today, people will go to all kinds of lengths to gain an educational advantage – from buying houses to get into a particular school's catchment area to resorting to plagiarism at university. If people have a certain way of thinking, they will be sorely tempted to use drugs to enhance their academic performance,” he said.
Professor Cooper hopes to win funding to conduct a study into students' attitudes towards the drugs. He said: “I suspect that for some the only thing that would deter them from taking them is the fear of side-effects.”
No major studies have yet been conducted in the UK to discover the extent to which smart drugs are being used by academics or students. But some academics contacted by The Times Higher were surprisingly open to the idea of taking them.
Stuart Derbyshire, senior lecturer in psychology at Birmingham University, said: “If it was possible to enhance cognition by taking drugs that were safe and without side-effects, then why would anyone not take them? Such drugs would be welcome.”
Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, said the development of the drugs for cognitive enhancement purposes should be encouraged and could benefit elderly academics.
He said: “One 100mg dose of Modafinil can be obtained for Â£1.80 – approximately what it costs to buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks. A 100mg dose for enhancement purposes would be enough for one working day. This is a trivial price to pay.”
Hazel Biggs, professor of medical law at Lancaster University, said it could be argued that there was little difference between students drinking caffeine drinks to stay up all night to revise and taking smart drugs.
But she warned that this could give rise to some significant legal questions for universities and employers. She said: “If students use smart drugs to enhance their performance and get a good university degree there could be a legal question when they get a job. If they find they are unable to cope at work without the drugs it could be argued that they have in effect falsified their qualifications, which is a criminal offence.”
Several academics also warned of the potentially harmful long-term side-effects of taking non-prescribed smart drugs.
Dave Woodhouse, director of the Cactus Clinic in the School of Social Sciences and Law at Teesside University, said: “There is evidence to suggest that continual use of these drugs over a period of years can prove detrimental to cognitive functioning and, consequently, future academic success. The analogy with sport is useful here: is immediate success worth the potential physical and mental degeneration in later life?”
Steven Rose, emeritus professor of biology at the Open University, said smart drugs raised serious questions for society as well as higher education.
He said: “We live in a pharmacological culture that is likely to take the attitude that if you take drugs to stay awake all night or improve sex, then why not take them to improve your performance in exams?
“We need to think through the implications of that as a society. We are used to dealing with nicotine and alcohol, but we are now facing questions that we are not well equipped to deal with.”
TOP FOUR TYPES OF SMART DRUG
Four types of drugs currently on the market or under development have emerged as the main contenders to become the smart drugs of choice for academics or students seeking to enhance their cognitive capabilities. Each has been found to aid concentration and memory among healthy takers.
- Methyl-phenidate has been around since the 1960s. Cost: 60 x 10mg tablets can be obtained on the internet for about Â£40 (67p per pill).
Popular brand name: Ritalin
Used to treat: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Known possible side-effects: Increased blood pressure, aggression, dizziness, sleep problems, nausea.
- Modafinil, an ampakine, has been developed and prescribed over the past seven years.
Cost: 30 x 100mg tablets can be obtained on the internet for about Â£43 (Â£1.43 per pill).
Popular brand name: Provigil/ Alertec.
Used to treat: Narcolepsy and other sleep disorders.
Known possible side-effects: Anxiety, headaches, nausea, mood swings, nervousness.
- Other ampakines have come on to the scene only in the past two to three years.
Cost: Unknown as these drugs are still in development.
Used to treat: Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, ADHD.
Known possible side-effects: In most cases none, although some drugs have been found to cause cases of nausea, headaches and impaired memory.
- Nicotinic Alpha-7 Agonists – the very latest smart drug.
Cost: Unknown as still in development.
Used to treat: Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia.
Known possible side-effects: No serious side-effects found so far.
‘NO EVIDENCE OF SERIOUS RISK'
No convincing argument has yet been made against the use of smart drugs to enhance academic performance, according to Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
Professor Caplan, one of higher education's most vocal def-enders of smart drugs, told The Times Higher that worries about safety were no different from normal concerns about any new product or innovation.
“If these drugs really do have harmful side-effects, then I would argue that people in the US and the UK would be unlikely to use them. Since some of these drugs have been around for some time, there doesn't appear to be any evidence that they pose a serious risk,” he said.
Professor Caplan acknowledged that there could be an issue over some people such as children feeling coerced into using smart drugs. But he added: “If you are talking about voluntary choice by reasonably competent people, I find it difficult to see in principle why using smart drugs to enhance your capability is bad. I find it laughable when people argue that it's unnatural when we are using devices such as computers and cellphones to enhance our capabilities almost every minute of the day.”
Lots of academics and students are already using smart drugs, he claimed.
“The notion that we are getting on to a slippery slope will not inhibit anyone from using anything that they think will give them an edge,” he said.
‘I WOULD CONSIDER USING THEM MYSELF'
Sarah Chan, a research fellow in bioethics at Manchester University's School of Law, is one of several academics who told The Times Higher they were open to the idea of using smart drugs to boost their academic performance.
“If it were cheaper and more convenient to obtain the current generation of smart drugs, I would certainly consider using them myself,” she said.
And she added: “Who among us has not, while struggling to remember an elusive fact, wished for a better memory, or berated ourselves for an inability to concentrate, cudgelling our tired brains to function?
“These drugs might, at the very least, be an improvement on caffeine, the current mental stimulant of choice for many students and academics.”
Dr Chan argued that there is nothing morally wrong with using smart drugs to enhance brainpower and said weighing up the benefits and possible risks was a matter for the individual.
She said: “Why should it be wrong to strive to better ourselves? Our capacity for conscious thought and for reason – our ability to observe, consider, interact with and perhaps shape the world around us – is part of what we value most about ourselves. Surely we ought to welcome the means to improve it, be that through better education, tools such as computers or the use of pharmaceutical agents?”
Fears that the cost of smart drugs could create an “unenhanced underclass” who could not afford them ignores the potential benefits to human advancement as a whole, she suggested.
“The solution is to ‘level up', to attempt to widen access to technology rather than restrict it. We should not spurn the benefits of smart drugs on the grounds that some cannot enjoy them. Instead, we ought to be making it possible for everyone to take advantage of these benefits – or even encouraging them to do so,” she said.