Leading Article: Smart drugs: facts needed

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The Independent Online

Surveys in America suggest that 16 per cent of university students are using "smart drugs", such as Ritalin and Modafinil, to make them more alert and able to perform better academically. Do we need to have a debate on the ethics of such drugs on the argument that they give students an unfair advantage over their peers? Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge, thinks so. She has even called for universities to investigate measures such as random dope testing to tackle the issue.

We think she may have a point. But we need more research into the effects of these drugs on healthy adults. The drugs may give students an unfair advantage because of the way in which they improve alertness and attention and they may thereby put pressure on them to feel that they have to use these drugs when they don't really want to. They may help students to perform well in completing puzzles and remembering long chains of digits. They may also help soldiers to complete all-night operations, as they are reputed to do. But we need to know more about the long-term effects of these mind-altering substances before we can consider dope tests. Let's have a debate on what we know about now and postpone the other ideas until later when we have the facts.