Smart Drugs: Should There Be Routine Doping Tests For Exam Students?

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An article in the Journal of Medical Ethics reports that the rising use of smart drugs or “nootropics” to enhance academic performance, could lead to routine doping tests in the future for exam students.

Vince Cakic of the Department of Psychology, from the University of Sydney, explains that despite raising many dilemmas about the legitimacy of chemically enhanced academic performance, these drugs will be near impossible to ban.

He finds similarities with doping in competitive sports. It is suggested that “95%” of elite athletes have used performance enhancing drugs.

He claims: “It is apparent that the failures and inconsistencies inherent in anti doping policy in sport will be mirrored in academia unless a reasonable and realistic approach to the issue of nootropics is adopted.”

“But what this should be is far from clear, especially given the ready availability of these types of drugs for therapeutic use,” declares Mr Cakic. He evokes the idea of urine tests for exam students.

He explains: “As laughable as it may seem, it is possible that scenarios such as this could very well come to fruition in the future. However, given that the benefits of nootropics could also be derived from periods of study at any time leading up to examinations, this would also require drug testing during non-exam periods.”

“If the current situation in competitive sport is anything to go by, any attempt to prohibit the use of nootropics will probably be difficult or inordinately expensive to police effectively,” he warns.

Originally, Nootropics were designed to help people with cognitive problems, such as dementia and attention deficit disorder. But now students with a threatening deadline have several options: modafinil (Provigil), methylphenidate (Ritalin), and amphetamine (Dexedrine).

Mr Cakic explains that the non-medical use of methylphenidate and amphetamine is as high as 25 percent on some US college campuses. It is particularly the case in colleges with more competitive admission criteria.

Drugs to enhance memory retention are brahmi, piracetam (Nootropil), donepezil (Aricept) and galantamine (Reminyl). And for boosting energy there is selegiline (Deprenyl).

The impact of these drugs is as yet “modest,” says Mr Cakic. However more potent versions could be soon developed. He says: “The possibility of purchasing ‘smartness in a bottle’ is likely to have broad appeal to students.” They are in quest of an advantage in an ever more competitive world.

There is disagreement on the proposal that these drugs should be prohibited for non-medical use because they give unfair advantage.

So far the only sensible reason to restrict the use of these smart drugs is that the long term safety of these drugs in healthy people is unclear. Mr Cakic carries on by pointing to the use of caffeine. It is known to enhance sporting performance. Therefore it is a form of ‘cheating’ that is tolerated because it is relatively harmless.

“Smart drugs for cognitive enhancement: ethical and pragmatic considerations in the era of cosmetic neurology”
V Cakic
J Med Ethics 2009; 35: 611-15
doi:10.1136/jme.2009.030882
Journal of Medical Ethics