Smart Drugs

There was a really interesting article in the TES recently called “Wise up to Smart Drugs”

The main focus of the article was that would more students due to increasing exam pressures want to use specific “brain boosting drugs” for cognitive enhancement and would this be a trend that will spread.

To investigate this point, the article mentions a 30 minute podcast called “Say Why to Drugs” by Suzi Gage and Carl Roberts from the University of Liverpool on cognitive enhancers. They considered the issue in some detail but essentially found that the specific drugs studied offered no additional cognitive benefit to non-prescribed users other than stating that they would increase energy and wakefulness.

Although their findings were inconclusive another project was outlined by Barbra Sahakian who is a professor of neuropsychology at Cambridge University.  Her study using Modafinil, in a placebo controlled double blind trial, found a small but significant boost in some tasks particularly involving planning and memory but interestingly she found that the people said that they enjoyed the tasks more.

She therefore suggests that the key benefit is that the drugs enhance “task related motivation”.

The article then explores the issue of legality and prevalence with surveys revealing that between 7 and 20% of university students in the UK, USA and Switzerland have taken cognitive enhancers at least once. In a poll by the New Scientist and BBCs Newsnight nearly 40% of respondents said that they had tried them.

The real reason for the article however is how and when this issue will affect schools. A secondary school teacher who is researching this issue for a PhD is quoted as estimating that the prevalence of the use of cognitive enhancers in schools is a very non approximate 5% to 30%.

He also found that peer pressure and not parents was the key factor in using the enhancers.

This therefore presents some new challenges to schools which may need to consider that some students may be gaining an unfair advantage over others by using cognitive enhancers.

Additionally they may have to consider, that is it the pressure of such an exam based system of measuring academic performance, which is driving competitiveness to this stage.

The central point however, is that all of the researchers want the debate about smart drugs to begin, so that education and schools can develop policies and procedures to understand how best to try to nurture  brain health and cognition practices in general.

In summary after considering all of the opinions above and in the pod cast, these I feel are the main findings:

  1. The most significant cognitive enhancement of the drugs highlighted was for the people who were actually prescribed the medications for the right reasons.
  2. For those performing at their functional level these medications may improve aspects of motivation
  3. Schools and Colleges may need to design policies and procedures for brain health and cognition practices for all students.

I don’t think that this issue is going to just be a fad however so forewarned is forearmed.