Students could face compulsory drug tests as rising numbers turn to 'cognitive enhancers' to boost concentration and exam marks


An increasing number of students are misusing legally prescribed drugs for psychiatric disorders in order to boost their academic performance, according to a major study into human enhancement.

The widespread use of “cognitive enhancers” within academia has led to growing concerns among colleges and universities that it may soon be necessary to start random drug testing, said one contributor to a report by four leading UK academies.

As many as 16 per cent of American students and about 10 per cent of UK students admit to using performance-enhancing drugs to improve their academic results, said Professor Barbara Sahakian, a psychiatrist at Cambridge University.

“People are starting to think about drug testing. Some of the students who don’t use cognitive enhancers may demand it because they are concerned about cheating. Some admissions tutors are also concerned about it,” Professor Sahakian said.

Prescription drugs used to treat recognised psychiatric disorders, such as Ritalin given for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and modafinil used to treat sleep disorders, are ending up in the hands of students who misuse them to keep awake and alert in the revision period leading up to exams, she said.

Even senior academics have admitted to using cognitive enhancers on a regular basis for a variety of purposes ranging from keeping jet lag at bay to improving memory and mental performance during intensive periods of work, Professor Sahakian said.

“The head of one laboratory in the US said that all of his staff are on modafinil and that in the future there will be a clear division between those who use modafinil and those who don’t,” she added.

Professor Sahakian was one of the experts who gave evidence to a workshop earlier this year on human enhancement in the workplace. The report Human Enhancement and the Future of Work, compiled by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society, says that cognitive enhancement is already happening, especially within academia.

It says that the number of prescriptions for stimulants in England has doubled over the past decade, rising from 220,000 in 1998 to 418,300 in 2004, and there is convincing evidence that some cognitive enhancers are being misused on regular basis in universities and schools.

“Research indicates that some academics may also make use of enhancers such as modafinil and for a variety of reasons, for example to overcome jetlag and to improve productivity for particularly challenging tasks,” the report says.

“An online poll for the journal Nature found that of 1,400 respondents from 60 countries, one in five said they had used drugs for non-medical reasons as a cognitive enhancer,” it says.

Professor Sahakian said studies show that some prescription drugs when used by healthy people can improve mental performance. Ritalin, for instance, increases short-term or working memory within healthy individuals.

The drug modafinil, used to treat people who suffer from narcolepsy, has been shown in trials on sleep-deprived doctors to reduce impulsive behaviour as well as increasing “cognitive flexibility”, leading to better decision making.

Modafinil may also increase the motivation and pleasure gained from performing routine cognitive tasks, the report says.

Unlike recreational drugs, many cognitive enhancers available on prescription to not produce rapid mood changes, such as a “high” or a “rush”, and do not lead to any obvious physical dependence, the report says. However, Professor Sahakian warned that that the safety of long-term use of cognitive enhancers has not been properly assessed.