Rhiannon Harries: Peering into the not-so-brave new world of students and substances

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The Hollyoaks writers must be over the moon. Now, alongside the standard repertoire of dilemmas faced by their university-aged characters (whether to join the Beer Society or the underwater basket-weaving team), they have a gift of a topical story-line in the form of so-called "smart drugs".

Leading neuropsychologist and Cambridge academic Prof Barbara Sahakian last week called for an official university-wide strategy to tackle student misuse of prescription drugs such as Ritalin and Modafinil (intended to treat attention-deficit and sleep disorders respectively) to increase their alertness and boost exam performance.

In an academic context, where cognitive enhancement is so obviously desirable, this is a thorny enough issue. Sahakian moots urine-testing as one possible safeguard, but the implications surely extend well beyond exam situations, since even the most indolent of students can usually muster the requisite adrenalin to dump the contents of their brain on to paper during finals.

A more obvious use for such drugs might be during sustained periods of work – during coursework, or the final weeks of a thesis. To stamp that out would require policing on a massive scale and, given a recent conversation I had with a young researcher, who had heard whispers about academics popping the odd pill themselves before presenting an important paper, it sounds like a case of quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Thank heavens, then, that most of us can breathe a sigh of relief that the only performance-enhancing substances on offer during our educations were good old-fashioned caffeine and nicotine. Or can we?

A recent New York Times article points out that the market for drugs used to treat psychiatric and neurological illnesses in the Western world far outstrips that for painkillers or cardiovascular drugs. As pharmaceutical companies invest billions in developing sophisticated substances to fine-tune our brains, the potential leap from treatment to enhancement shrinks. How long before it becomes normal to fire up your neurotransmitters before a business meeting, interview or even a date?

In the same way that anti-depressants, intended as a temporary support, have morphed into a long-term crutch, the idea of neuro-enhancement exists in the dangerous gap between things as they are and things as we feel they should be. If our natural capacity is not enough to cope with the situations we find ourselves in, then it's the situation that ought to be reconfigured, not our brains. If it starts with a Hollyoaks-style storyline, the plot that might eventually unfold in the real world looks more like a terrifyingly dystopic sci-fi flick.

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