Call for action on smart drugs

25 February 2010

Pressure is mounting for the University to take action on the increased use of cognition enhancing drugs.

A behavioural neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge has warned that universities must address the increasing use of so-called ‘smart drugs’ such as modafinil and Ritalin by students, as reported in The Cambridge Student (TCS) earlier this term.

Students have echoed these concerns. Sophie Walker, an Archaeology and Anthropology student, told TCS that “the university should start a campaign to highlight the negative effects of taking smart drugs and to remind students that taking cognition enhancing drugs is a form of cheating,” although she said that testing should only be introduced “if there is a continued increase in the use of smart drugs”

On Sunday, neuroscientist Professor Barbara Sahakian argued: “This is something that universities really have to discuss. They should have some strategy, some kind of active policy.” In particular, she pointed to urine testing as a potential way to identify users of the drugs.

Although the drugs are normally prescribed for neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and narcolepsy, they may be obtained over the internet. In addition, modafinil is not listed as a controlled substance in the UK, making it easily available. Polls in the US indicate that 16% of students are using these drugs to increase alertness and improve mental performance.

In an article entitled ‘Professor’s Little Helper’, published in Nature magazine in 2007 with Dr. Morein-Zamir, also at Cambridge, Professor Sahakian suggested that “Universities may have to decide whether to ban drug use altogether, or to tolerate it in some situations”.

The drugs’ use within universities is not confined to students. In a lecture at the Royal Institute on Monday, Professor Sahakian said that one UK colleague had admitted using modafinil fortnightly to allow sustained intellectual activity, finding the drug “mild but very valuable”. Cognitive-enhancing drugs increase word-finding ability which, Professor Sahakian points out, would be particularly useful to lecturers.

More generally, a recent poll in Nature revealed that one fifth of the 1,400 respondents used cognitive enhancing drugs; of this proportion, 52% obtained the drug through prescription and 34% via the internet. In addition, 33% said they would feel pressured to give drugs to their children if other children were taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Professor Sahakin has particularly emphasised the coercive aspects of ‘smart drug’ use, pointing out that “Some students say they feel it is cheating, and it puts pressure on them to feel they have to use these drugs when they don’t really want to”.

However, Andrew Lomas, a second-Year historian at Churchill, disagreed. He told TCS: “I don’t feel outraged that some students might be using them when I’m not – I think that I can cope with my workload, and achieve what I want to achieve without them; if others haveto take drugs to do so, that’s their problem.”

In addition, he stated that “I can’t say I know of anyone who has taken anything stronger than caffeine to aid their academic performance.” TCS spoke to a number of students who expressed similar sentiments, suggesting that the statistics cited in Nature do not appear to reflect the experience of Cambridge students.

Sam Stamp, from Emmanuel College, suggested that “if it’s true that these drugs would improve performance then I could definitely believe that a lot of people in the university would take them.”

Arguments have also been raised regarding whether taking so-called ‘smart drugs’ constitutes cheating. In the 2007 Nature article, Professor Sahakian pointed out that “just as one would hardly propose that a strong cup of coffee could be the secret of academic achievement or faster career advancement, the use of such drugs does not necessarily entail cheating.”

Shelley Batts, at the neuroscience blog Retrospectacle, supports this view: “A pill will never inform you as to the correct answer on a multiple choice test or give you the answer to any essay question. It will only improve the focus and grasp on information which you already know.”

Despite this, concern still persists in the student community. Nicole Chambers, from Homerton College, said that “I definitely think that some kind of drugs testing should be implemented, throughout the year, and during the exams.”

Concluding Monday’s lecture, Professor Sahakian acknowledged that “pharmacological enhancement is one solution to improving society”, but emphasised that other solutions – such as regular exercise, and a healthy work-life balance – should not be precluded. She also raised concerns that students are not aware of what they are buying when purchasing medication on the internet.

The University has emphasised the alternative support available for students who wish to increase their academic performance. Professor John Rallison, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, said: “The University does not approve of any non-medicinal drug taking.  Colleges would discourage this for any students who felt it necessary to take performance enhancing stimulants to help with their studies and/or examinations, and would wish to support them in other ways.”

Speaking to TCS, Diane Rainsbury, Secretary at the Cambridge University Board of Examinations, did not detail the policy of the University regarding ‘smart-drugs’ testing. She said that the Board was “not in a position to give a firm conclusion as to what our policy is going to be in this respect”.

Becky Sage – Deputy News Editor

Photo Credit – Mark Curtis TCS News