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Smart drugs; a new panacea?

Modafinil. Exelon. Reminyl. These are all names which where virtually unheard of a year ago but are now appearing in newspaper and magazine articles with astounding regularity. They are smart drugs, taken to enhance memory, boost motivation, increase concentration, and even improve intelligence.

Due to the fact they were largely developed by the respectable pharmaceutical industry for a variety of mental afflictions, these drugs are deemed to carry as much risk as dropping a couple of paracetamol. They’ll keep you up all night to write an essay and you’ll be able to take more to sit through an exam. You’ll be sharp, witty, erudite. An intellectual super-man imbued with all the cerebral powers of Einstein and Shakespeare.

Or at least that’s the picture painted by some of the enthusiastic hacks in the media.

Yet surely a powerful drug that influences your cognitive abilities would carry some sort of pay-off? Surely necking those shiny white gems containing the elixir of distilled wisdom would come at a price? The answer is obvious.

Modafinal, probably the most popular in the burgeoning smart drugs market, was developed as a treatment for narcolepsy, and is a drug which is now being tested to treat ADHD, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia, in short it is a drug which has a powerful effect on the chemistry of the brain. Those who take it recreationally say it is like coffee 2.0. A super-strain of the drink we have all come to rely on, it focuses the mind, it increases your concentration span. You’ll be able to remember every cogent point from that textbook you’ve just read and regurgitate it with miraculous ease. But you would also face the same risks associated with other common illegal stimulants. The come-down from the majority of smart drugs is analogous to that of MDMA or speed. As for the long-term risks these are completely unknown- some of these drugs have existed for barely a decade. No-one knows what a burnt-out Modafinil freak will look like.

There is of course also ethical questions raised by the suggestion of using a substance to increase your cognitive abilities. Should it be acceptable for a student to take smart drugs before an exam, or write an essay whilst under the influence? The initial ethical response would be to reject any notion that this form of enhancement would be acceptable.

However, why is the same moral question not raised by the use of caffeine as a motivation and memory enhancer? The argument put forward by opponents says that their usage is unfair and would mean there is no longer a level playing field between students. But is the playing field truly level even without these drugs? Some students are financially able and willing to see private tutors, surely allowing them an unfair advantage. There are also the ‘natural’ advantages of where some students are more intelligent, focused, and disciplined than others. Students do not currently operate on a level playing field, so why should performance enhancing drugs be banned?

This argument also assumes that the only reason for education is the competition between peers. Yet surely the true point of education is to actually learn and better ourselves intellectually. To prohibit the use of smart drugs would surely deny this non-competitive element to education. There is no clear ethical argument for banning or discouraging their usage. Their usage can only be discouraged in terms of the inherent risks involved in taking pharmaceuticals which alter your brain. Smart drugs may not be unethical but they are certainly not desirable.

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