UK universities asked to start testing for smart drugs

By chillinwill · Feb 22, 2010 · ·
  1. chillinwill
    Cambridge scientist calls for ethical debate on drugs bought on internet that boost alertness and attention

    Universities must investigate measures, including random dope testing, to tackle the increasing use of cognitive enhancment drugs by students for exams, a leading behavioural neuro*scientist warns.

    Student use of drugs, such as Ritalin and modafinil, available over the internet and used to increase the brain's alertness, had "enormous implications for universities", said Barbara Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge University's psychiatry department.

    Normally prescribed for neurological disorders including Alzheimer's disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, such drugs boost acetylcholine in the brain, improving alertness and attention. Their use has prompted concerns that they could give students an unfair advantage. "This is something that universities really have to discuss. They should have some strategy, some kind of active policy," Sahakian said.

    "The coercion aspect is a strong one. 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."

    Sahakian, whose work is at the forefront of research on the effects of such drugs on healthy people, said urgent debate was now needed on the ethics of how society dealt with "smart drugs".

    Though data on long-term effects on healthy users was not yet available, some scientists believe that pharmaceutical advancement and *cultural acceptance could make *"cosmetic neurology" as popular as beauty "enhancements".

    "If a safe and effective drug is developed which enhances cognition, then I think it would be difficult not to allow access to it," Sahakian said. But if such drugs were then legal, many ethical issues had to be addressed.

    Speaking before a lecture at the Royal Institution tomorrow on the ethical implications of smart drugs for universities and schools, she added: "The big question is, are we all going to be taking drugs in the next 10 years and boosting our cognition in that way?

    "And if we are, will we use them to have a shorter working week, so we can go home, spend more time with our families and have a good work/life balance? Or, will we go headlong into a 24/7 society where we work all the time because we can work all the time?

    "You have to consider there are things that could be beneficial about such drugs because we have an ageing population: people may have to work for longer, and their pensions may not be performing. It may be, as you get older, that people may want to take a cognitive enhancement drug."

    Surveys in the United States indicate that 16% of university students are using "smart drugs". There are global websites and chatrooms devoted to how to best use drugs to aid study.

    Most buy the drugs over the internet. "That is a real concern, because they are not aware of what they are *getting, or how it could affect them," Sahakian said.

    A Nature magazine poll of 1,400 respondents – mostly scientists and researchers – indicated that one in five had used "smart drugs". Questioned about their attitude towards use, the majority frowned on their use in competitive situations, such as university entrance exams. However, some admitted that they would feel under pressure to give their child a "smart" drug if other children were using them.

    "If these drugs become, essentially, legal, it will be difficult to say you can't use them for a competitive exam," Sahakian said. "Students who don't use them feel this is cheating. This is something that universities should at least discuss. Should there be urine testing? These questions have to be looked at."

    Caroline Davies
    February 21, 2010
    The Guardian

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  1. missparkles
    I did post a topic asking the very same question when I first arrived at this site. About how ethical it is if some people, the ones that have access to so called "smart drugs" will have an advantage over people who don't. And if it's a good idea to encourage (by not addressing this issue it is, in effect) being ignored. That could be seen as a form of acceptance.

    I think it is important to discuss, after all, the difference between different pass rates at UK universities is sometimes so small a margin that drugs such as modafinil could make a difference between an upper second or a first.

  2. psychedelaholic
    SWIM has both methylphenidate and modafinil to thank for helping him finish his chemistry degree. He used modafinil to motivate him into doing his literature review (he did it about the anaesthetic action of ketamine and NOS!) and to help him with one 3 hour exam. And snorted ritalin to get him through his final exams. He just had to snort 10mg which would get him working hard for a good 3 hours and helped him retain the information better. He then snorted 10mg before each exam to get him into the same head space as when he was revising.

    SWIM needed this extra help as he completely balls up his second year and only got through to his third year by the skin of his teeth. SWIM doesn't regaudrd is as cheating though as SWIM still had to work bloody hard. He just used them to motivate him and stop him getting distracted. SWIM still ended up with a 3rd but with the way his second year went he amazed everyone, even his lecturers, by actually passing his degree.

    (SWIM doesn't have ADD or ADHD)
  3. missparkles
    It does kinda make it irrelevant to have different pass levels to a degree then doesn't it? But I do appreciate what you're saying, if it gets you through, it's done the job.

    As far as cheating is concerned, it does give some a hidden advantage, in something that is competitive, so what should it be called?

  4. psychedelaholic
    Well SWIM was as clever as a lot of people on his course but found it very hard to start working. Once he had started he was fine it was just that initial push and he found these substances to be the perfect catalyst. Unfortunately doing so bad in his second year really made the 3rd year so much harder than it needed to be. In the summer between years SWIM had 5 retakes to do just to get through to his final year. He was certain that he wasn't going to make it but he actually did really well. If he had done that well the whole year he would of found the third year much easier, been a lot more confident and probably wouldn't of needed any chemical help.

    Not sure I know what you mean by saying it's competitive though. There isn't a certain amount of people that can get a 1st, a certain amount that get a 2:1 etc it just goes on what % you end up with. 70%+ is a 1st, 60%+ a 2:1 ....
  5. Electric Wizard
    I find it odd they'd call utilising a brain to it's full potential cheating. This is academia after all, not proffesional sports.
  6. psychedelaholic
    Yer exactly, it's not like taking these drugs make you clever they just help with focus and help with memory. Some people have photographic memories which gives them a massive advantage but they are not called cheaters or marked differently to those without that ability.
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