1 October 2009

‘Smart drugs’ set to cause trouble

Agence France-Presse
Students who use performance-enhancing drugs to stay alert and learn faster could pose a major dilemma for universities, and they may even face future urine tests, warns an Australian expert.
Study

More powerful performance-enhancing drugs are in the pipeline, and may cause serious problems for universities in the future. Credit: iStockphoto

PARIS: Students who use performance-enhancing drugs to stay alert and learn faster could pose a major dilemma for universities, and they may even face future urine tests, warns an Australian expert.

Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, psychologist Vince Cakic of the University of Sydney, says that ‘nootropics’ – drugs designed to help people with cognitive problems – are already being used off-label to boost academic performances.

Amphetamines and methylphenidates, marketed as Dexedrine and Ritalin, are time-honoured stimulants used by as many as a quarter of students in some U.S. colleges, especially those with competitive admission standards, according to figures from U.S. research quoted by Cakic.

More powerful drugs on the way

These drugs are used medically to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and uncontrolled sleepiness. A newer-generation temptation of the same class of drug is modafinil.

For boosting memory retention, says Cakic, the potential drugs include donepezil, used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, as well as galantamine and piracetam. For more get-up-and-go, there is the drug selegiline.

So far, these drugs offer only a modest perk in performance, but more powerful versions are in the pharmaceutical pipeline and may well have a potent allure, said Cakic.

“The possibility of purchasing ‘smartness in a bottle’ is likely to have broad appeal to students with normal or above-average cognitive functioning,” he argues.

Dangerous and impossible to control

Cakic says the experience of campaigns to stamp out doping in sport should serve as a warning.

Performance–enhancing drugs may not only be physically dangerous, addictive and have unwanted mental side effects, they would also be near-impossible to control, he says.

“One conjures to mind the scenario of students taken to one side, cup in hand, and asked to provide a urine sample to test officials.

“Scandal would erupt and rumours abound when the magna cum laude [top of the class] is stripped of his title for testing positive for modafinil – a drug that gave him near-superhuman levels of mental endurance.

“As laughable as it may seem, it is possible that scenarios such as this could very well come to fruition in the future,” he writes.

“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.”

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