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Are Mind-Enhancing Drugs a Dangerous Fad or a Great Way to Get Ahead?

Advocates say they are an irresistible way of improving students' performance. Critics argue they are a dangerous fad.
 
 
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In the middle of the exam season, the offer of a drug that could improve results might excite students but would be likely to terrify their parents. Now, a distinguished professor of bioethics says it is time to embrace the possibilities of "brain boosters" -- chemical cognitive enhancement. The provocative suggestion comes from John Harris, director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Ritalin is a stimulant drug, best known as a treatment for hyperactive children. But it has also found a ready black market among students, especially in the US, who are desperate to succeed and are turning to it in preference to the traditional stimulants of coffee and cigarettes. Users say it helps them to focus and concentrate, and this has been confirmed in research studies on adults.

David Green, a student at the University of Harvard, told The Washington Post: "In all honesty, I haven't written a paper without Ritalin since my junior year in high school."

Matt, a business finance student at the University of Florida, claimed a similar drug, Adderall, had helped him improve his grades. "It's a miracle drug," he told The Boston Globe. "It is unbelievable how my concentration boosts when I use it."

Some experts have condemned the trend and accused students of gaining an "unfair advantage" by doping, without explaining why it is any more unfair than hiring a private tutor or paying for exam coaching.

Professor Harris says that the arguments against the drugs "have not been persuasive" and that society ought to want enhancement.

"It is not rational to be against human enhancement," he writes. "Humans are creatures that result from an enhancement process called evolution and moreover are inveterate self improvers in every conceivable way."

Although no drug can be guaranteed safe and free of all side-effects, Ritalin has been judged safe enough for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and has been widely used to treat them over many years, he says.

The drug is a stimulant which was introduced in 1956 and appears to influence the way the brain filters and responds to stimuli. It increases energy as well as confidence and has been compared to cocaine. Possible side-effects are typical of stimulants and include insomnia, loss of appetite, dizziness and depression on withdrawal.

Other drugs investigated for their mind-enhancing properties include donepezil, a treatment for dementia and modafinil, used in narcolepsy, the condition in which sufferers repeatedly fall asleep.

Both drugs are thought to boost highly skilled performance, where concentration and alertness are prerequisites. One study found commercial pilots who took donepezil for one month performed better than pilots on a placebo when dealing with emergencies on a flight simulator. A study of modafinil found that it boosted the performance of helicopter pilots flying on simulators who had been deprived of sleep.

Writing in the online British Medical Journal, Professor Harris says the use of cognitive enhancing drugs should be seen as a natural extension of the process of education. Drug regulatory agencies should assess the benefits and risks in the same way as they would for any other medical intervention.

"Suppose a university were to set out deliberately to improve the mental capacities of its students. Suppose they further claimed that not only could they achieve this but that their students would be more intelligent and mentally alert than any in history. We might be sceptical but if the claims could be sustained should we be pleased?"

 
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