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‘Smart drugs’ are here — should college students be allowed to use them?

Should students be able to pop pills when they crack their books? (istock)

We use coffee to stay awake, good food and nutrition to stay healthy and alert. But if there was a drug that made you smarter, helped you learn, and made you more focused, would you take it?

That’s a question that Nicole Vincent, associate professor of philosophy, law and neuroscience at Georgia State University, asked to open her TED talk in Sydney last year.

That question also opened a Monday night debate at George Washington University in which two sides argued both for and against whether “College Students Should Be Allowed to Take Smart Drugs.” Vincent, along with Eric Racine, director of the Neuroethics Research Unit at the IRCM (Institut de Recherches Cliniques de Montréal), argued against. Anjan Chatterjee, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and chair of neurology of Pennsylvania Hospital, and Nita Farahany, professor at Duke University and the director of Duke Science & Society, argued for it.

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The debate began with an audience vote on whether healthy college students should take performance-enhancing drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin or Modafinil. After a tally showing 44 percent of the audience against, the debate began.

Farahany, on the “for” side, argued that improving our brains and ourselves is a general social good. What’s more, she argued, banning these drugs limits the ability of college students to make their own decisions about when and how they should be used. Chatterjee, also on the “for” side, agreed with Farahany, saying that patients who come into his practice have choices about which medical advice they wish to follow. He added some medical and scientific information to the discussion, stating that these drugs aren't as of high risk of cardiovascular side effects as previously thought.

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But even if these drugs are indeed safe to use, we don’t know just how effective they are at increasing cognitive performance. Racine, arguing the “against” side, stated that he doesn’t believe that these “smart drugs” actually exist, as scientific studies regarding their off-label efficacy in making people “smarter” often yield mixed results.

Indeed, a recent meta analysis of 48 studies on prescription stimulants found only small effects on certain types of memory in healthy individuals. Racine also questioned whether it is morally acceptable and praiseworthy to use these types of drugs to gain an edge — he argued a strong no.

Vincent moved away from the medical effects of the drugs, instead making a compelling case for the social side effects of widespread drug use in society. The issue may not be the drugs themselves but rather the competitive nature of society. If the new normal is using these performance-enhancing drugs to get ahead, she argued, our competitive society is likely to make the drugs a new standard, coercing people to have to choose to use the drugs in a bid to keep up. Ultimately, this strategy isn’t going to succeed in getting us the things we really value, like spending time relaxing or with family and friends.

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There are wider societal implications to consider when debating this issue, such as whether the use of smart drugs will only serve to further widen the achievement gap between those who are more advantaged than others.

Chatterjee says that while it’s hard to predict how social issues surrounding the use of these drugs will go, research suggests that “people who are at the lower end of the distribution of [cognitive abilities] like concentration and working memory … are actually improved a little more than people at the higher end.” That might mean that widespread use of the drugs could actually level the playing field instead of making it more unequal.

However, Vincent argued that the most disadvantaged and least powerful in society may be the ones who take the brunt of the burden, bringing up a scenario in which factory workers may be required to take these drugs in order to work super-human shifts on a regular basis.

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At the end of the debate, the “for” side won, with 59 percent of the audience members voting in favor of college students being allowed to use smart drugs. But the discussion of the issue shouldn’t just end with a vote. “Being in favor of the specific motion … is not the same as saying that college students should use smart drugs,” Chatterjee told me in a phone interview. “It’s really a choice issue.”

A progressive next step could be to talk about the issue more publicly to better determine how these drugs can or should fit into our society. Vincent says that conversations like the ones at Monday's debate are hard to come by — people are wary of the topic because drug use is taboo. Debates like last night’s “simply mak[e] explicit the things that people find valuable,” she says, “… and don’t stigmatize. Allow people to talk.”

The discussion of values may be what lies at the true heart of the issue. Chatterjee says, “If we value ultra-competition in these settings where a little advantage gives you disproportionate rewards. … I think the drugs come along for the ride.”

Princess Ojiaku is a science writer covering topics of neuroscience, music, policy and society. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Popular Science and Pacific Standard. You can keep up with her on Twitter at @artfulaction or on her Web site.

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