I first heard this story on BBC Radio 4 when they were discussing the use of cognitive brain enhancers to boost academic performance. It appears to first come from an article in Nature magazine by Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir – but I found a version published here.Basically, you’re about to take an exam – would you like an espresso with a double shot of methylphenidate…..or just soft brown sugar?
Would you boost your own brain power? Cognitive-enhancing drugs are increasingly being used in non-medical situations such as shift work and by active military personnel. This is where the debate about their use begins
in earnest. How should the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs be regulated in healthy people? Should their use always be monitored by healthcare professionals? If offered by a friend or colleague, would you, the reader, take a pill that would help you to better focus, plan or remember? Under what conditions would you feel comfortable taking a pill, and under what conditions would you decline? The answers to such questions hinge on many factors, including the exact drug being discussed, its short-term and long-term benefits and risks, and the purpose for which it is used. There are instances in which most people would agree that the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs should be prevented or at least regulated and monitored, such as by healthy children or in competitive settings (including entrance exams to university). There are also situations in which many would agree that the use of drugs to improve concentration or planning may be tolerated, if not encouraged, such as by air-traffic controllers, surgeons and nurses who work long shifts. One can even imagine situations where such enhancing-drug-taking would be recommended, such as for airport-security screeners, or by soldiers in active combat. But there are no straightforward answers and any fruitful debate must address each situation in turn.
How would you react if you knew your
colleagues — or your students — were
taking cognitive enhancers?
In academia, we know that a number of our scientific colleagues in the United States and the United Kingdom already use modafinil to counteract the effects of jetlag, to enhance productivity or mental energy, or to deal with demanding and important intellectual challenges . Modafinil and other drugs are available online, but their non- prescription and long-term use has not been monitored in healthy individuals. For many, it seems that the immediate and tangible benefits of taking these drugs are more persuasive than concerns about legal status and adverse effects. There are clear trends suggesting that the use of stimulants such as methylphenidate on college campuses is on the rise, and is becoming more commonplace in ever younger students.
Universities may have to decide whether to ban drug use altogether, or to tolerate it in some situations (whether to enable all-night study sessions or to boost alertness during lectures).
The debate over cognitive-enhancing drugs must also consider the expected magnitude of the benefits and weigh them against the risks and side effects of each drug. Most readers would not consider that having a double shot
of espresso or a soft drink containing caffeine would confer an unfair advantage at work.
The use of caffeine to enhance concentration is commonplace, despite having side effects in at least some individuals
Often overlooked in media reports on cognitive enhancers is the fact that many of the effects in healthy individuals are transient and small-to-moderate in size. Just as one would hardly propose that a strong cup of coffee could be the secret of academic achievement or faster career advancement, the use of such drugs does not necessarily entail cheating. Cognitive enhancers with small or no side effects but with moderate enhancing effects that alleviate forgetfulness or enable one to focus better on the task at hand during a tiring day at work would be unlikely to meet much objection.
And does it matter if it is delivered as a pill or a drink? Would you, the reader, welcome a cognitive enhancer delivered in a beverage that is readily obtainable and affordable, and has a moderate yet noticeable effect
on your concentration and alertness?……
I will be looking for more threads on this story in coming weeks.