Should students be free to take mind-enhancing drugs?


Drugs that can help us stay awake for longer, improve our concentration and boost our memory are hear and are already being used by academics and students. The likes of Modafinil and Ritalin are prescription only, but are being traded on university campuses and bought over the internet.


We are the result of an enhancement process - evolution - and are inveterate self-improvers. My favourite example of an enhancement technology that’s played a significant part in our history is ‘synthetic sunshine’ – first firelight, then lamplight and finally electric light have transformed our world. And in many ways, the issues raised by the introduction of synthetic sunshine aren’t very different to those created by mind-improving drugs.


Before synthetic sunshine, people slept when it was dark and worked in the light of day. With the advent of technology like the candle or electric light, work and attempts to improve the mind by, for instance, reading, could continue into and through the night This created new competitive pressures and incentives for people to use the new technology to their advantage. There were also the side-effects of use (such as smoke-clogged atmospheres and overuse. The solution, however, was not to outlaw synthetic sunshine but, perhaps belatedly, regulate working hours and improve access. I believe the same will be true of chemical cognitive enhances.


The prospect of mind-enhancing probably makes us a little squeamish because they work by altering brain function. But beneficial neural changes have been reported for reading, education, physical exercise, and even our diet can have an influence. So how are drugs ethically different?


In sports, performance enhancement is cheating. It is, of course, considered cheating because it is against the rules. But any good set of rules would need to find a clear distinction between allowed cognitive enhancements, such as a double espresso, and the new enhancement techniques – drugs – if the latter are to be banned. That may prove difficult.


As with all opportunities, we have to weigh up the benefits of mind-enhancing drugs against the risks. Ritalin is a drug prescribed to children with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) allowing them to focus on their work, and Modafinil helps people with conditions like narcolepsy and shift-work sleep disorder to stay awake. These drugs have been shown to confer significant advantages in cognitive performance and be safe enough to treat conditions that are not life-threatening or painful.


With that risk assessment in mind, drugs are regulated on a scale that judges the potential harm from the very dangerous, such as heroin, to the relatively harmless, such as caffeine. So the fact that cognitive enhancers are drugs is no reason to outlaw them.


The question must now be addressed as to whether cognitive-enhancing drugs should be made readily available to healthy adults to help us work and play. The students taking the drugs now are the early adopters, but the trend will grow.


Of course these drugs would give those who use them an advantage over those who don’t, but would this be unfair? Consider higher education (expensive and not available to all) and hard work (rejected by many). These offer advantages, but are not rejected on the basis of fairness.


So when it comes to cognitive  enhancing drugs, the arguments for monitored extended use – just as we have seen with the likes of the morning-after contraceptive poll and Viagra – seems indisputable.


Professor John Harris

Lord Alliance Professor of Bioethics, University of Manchester

BBC Focus Magazine, October 2009