In a Nature commentary Barbara Sahakian & Sharon Morein-Zamir (University of Cambridge) discuss the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs in order to boost brainpower. And of course, these ‘Professor’s little helpers’ are also penetrating those places where the brains are (or should be) most heavily used: academia.
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).
But it’s not just the students. Pills also provide brain boost for academics, according to an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement earlier this year:
Feeling under intense pressure to improve your performance at work? Fatigued by the growing demands of a 24/7 society? These are occupational hazards affecting many of today’s academics.
But the suggestion that an individual’s performance can be improved, and tiredness overcome, simply by popping a pill can shock even those academics who have studied the effects of so-called smart drugs.
According to the THES, no major studies have yet been conducted in the UK to discover the extent to which smart drugs are being used by academics or students. The Times Higher made a journey around British academia to poll the opinions and attitudes about the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs in academia. Here are a few quotes:
"If it was possible to enhance cognition by taking drugs that were safe and without side-effects, then why would anyone not take them? Such drugs would be welcome."
"the development of the drugs for cognitive enhancement purposes should be encouraged and could benefit elderly academics."
"it could be argued that there was little difference between students drinking caffeine drinks to stay up all night to revise and taking smart drugs."
"There is evidence to suggest that continual use of these drugs over a period of years can prove detrimental to cognitive functioning and, consequently, future academic success. The analogy with sport is useful here: is immediate success worth the potential physical and mental degeneration in later life?"
"If it were cheaper and more convenient to obtain the current generation of smart drugs, I would certainly consider using them myself. Who among us has not, while struggling to remember an elusive fact, wished for a better memory, or berated ourselves for an inability to concentrate, cudgelling our tired brains to function? These drugs might, at the very least, be an improvement on caffeine, the current mental stimulant of choice for many students and academics.
"Why should it be wrong to strive to better ourselves? Our capacity for conscious thought and for reason – our ability to observe, consider, interact with and perhaps shape the world around us – is part of what we value most about ourselves. Surely we ought to welcome the means to improve it, be that through better education, tools such as computers or the use of pharmaceutical agents?"
I’m quite surprised by the open attitude towards the use of cognitive enhancing drugs in academia (especially considering that they are not anonymised in the THES article). However, I would suspect that the picture would be quite different if a random sample of British academics had been polled.
And me? I’m heavily hooked on drugs and have no plans to kick the habit whatsoever. I get my high quality drugs for moderate prices from either my favorite provider in Newtown, or my favorite distributor on campus.