Hilary Boden discusses cognitive-enhancing drugs

An anonymous on-line survey run by Newsnight and New Scientist has revealed that a surprisingly large number of people are using “cognitive-enhancing” drugs to improve their mental ability. Completed by 761 people, the results showed that 38% of participants said that they had taken a cognitive-enhancing drug once or more, with 92% of them stating that they would use them again.

The participants had tried drugs such as Modafinil, Ritalin and Adderall – all normally prescribed to patients with medical conditions. Modafinil is used to treat the sleep disorder narcolepsy, and both Adderall and Ritalin are stimulant drugs used in the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, they are also well known for their ability to improve memory and focus. Ritalin is a controlled drug, but Modafinil can be legally bought online despite it being illegal to supply without prescription. Almost 40% of the participants who had used the cognitive-enhancing drugs said that they had managed to buy online, and it’s unsurprising that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency currently regards tackling the illegal sale and supply of medicines over the internet as a priority. But when students everywhere frequently reach for a cup of coffee to get that last hundred words finished, a cigarette nicotine-hit for dissertation inspiration, and pro-plus to fuel an all-nighter, what is the big problem?

It’s not just students who are celebrating the potential of cognitive-enhancing drugs: even some scientists are suggesting that they may have a beneficial role to play in society, if regulated correctly. Most significantly, John Harris, the director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics has said “It is not rational to be against human enhancement […] Humans are creatures that result from an enhancement process called evolution and moreover are inveterate self improvers in every conceivable way.” He argues that the case against the drugs is unconvincing. While no drugs can be guaranteed to be totally safe and devoid of side effects, Ritalin has been deemed safe enough for children who suffer from ADHD, and it has been prescribed to them for many years. Furthermore, a study which involved commercial pilots taking the drug Donepezil (used to treat dementia) for one month revealed that those on the drug performed better than those given a placebo when subjected to emergency scenarios in a flight simulator. In addition, Modafinil was found to boost the performance of sleep deprived helicopter pilots flying on simulators.

The opinion of Barabara Sahakian, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, reiterates Harris’s viewpoint: “I do think we’ve undervalued [the drugs]. As a society we could perhaps move forward if we all had a form of cognitive enhancement that was safe,” Sahakian and her research team are currently investigating whether cognitive-enhancing drugs like Modafinil can help those who suffer from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Furthermore, their most recent research found that sleep deprived surgeons perform better on Modafinil.

Professor Harris goes further to advocate the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs as a means to advance the process of education. “Suppose a university were to set out deliberately to improve the mental capacities of its students. Suppose they further claimed that not only could they achieve this but that their students would be more intelligent and mentally alert than any in history. We might be sceptical but if the claims could be sustained should we be pleased?” Harris deems the answer to be yes. But participants of the online survey revealed an underlying apprehension surrounding this vision: when asked about the potential impact the drugs could have in society, people reported concerns about the possible creation of a two-tier education system in which the richest excel because they are able to afford the cognitive-enhancing drugs. Furthermore, they voiced a greater warning: “If society has come to the point that we have to take cognitive enhancers to function or perform to certain expected levels, then it is a society that has placed performance over happiness and health.”

Reflecting this anxiety, Professor Anjan Chatterjee from the University of Pennsylvania highlights the potential for loosing creativity, and points out that “being smarter does not mean being wiser”. He considers a resulting environment where children at top preparatory schools take Ritalin in “epidemic proportions” with pilots, police and doctors being pressurised to take the drugs when on-call. Is this really a world we want to see coming into fruition?

As students, we all feel the pressure to excel academically and later to reach our full potential professionally, and so the prospect of a pill which makes our lives that little bit easier is incredibly tempting. The issue is that we not only know virtually nothing about the long-term affects these drugs have on healthy brains, but also the societal implications they carry.


Hilary Boden

Image credit – e-MagineArt.com