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Use of attention enhancing drugs sparks debate

Written by: on March 5, 2010

Students’ use of cognitive enhancement drugs is rising and the consequences for universities could be huge. Some academics are even calling for mandatory drug testing.

Barbara Sahakian, a Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at Cambridge University’s Department of Psychiatry gave a lecture at the Royal Institute on Monday 22nd February outlining the ethical implications of synthetic cognitive enhancement.

Drugs such as Ritalin and Modafinil are available over the internet and are normally prescribed for disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Narcolepsy and ADHD.

They improve concentration by increasing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain.

The growing demand for them has sparked a debate regarding how they could create an unfair advantage for students choosing to use them.

In the lecture, Sahakian, who is involved in researching the effects of these drugs, called for a debate over the use of attention enhancing drugs, the Guardian reported.

“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 legal, many ethical issues would have to be addressed.

“Students who don’t use them feel this is cheating. This is something that universities should at least discuss. Should there be urine testing?”

Rebecca Shuttleworth, a Psychology undergraduate at Warwick, said:

“If these drugs do become legal then there would be no way to stop everyone from using them, therefore they could cause academic performance to depend on what you can buy rather than true academic ability.

“However is there any real difference between these drugs and other performance enhancing drugs like caffeine; most students are hooked on things like coffee, Red Bull and Pro Plus?”

According to recent polls, around 16 per cent of students in the US are using drugs to help them study.

A Nature magazine poll of 1,400 respondents – mostly scientists and researchers – indicated that one in five had used “smart drugs”, showing how academic staff as well as students could be affected.

The University of Warwick’s Press Office was unwilling to comment on what action they would take if these drugs became widely used amongst the student body.

The question therefore remains as to whether these ‘cognitive enhancers’ will affect future students’ academic careers and what the consequences will be if they do.

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