Students could face compulsory drugs testing around exam time amid concerns that some are “cheating” by taking pills to improve their results.
Research show 10% of UK students admit to taking ‘cognitive enhancing’ drugs to help them concentrate, stay up late and complete deadlines on time. This rises to 16% among US students.
Professor Barbara Sahakian, a psychiatrist at Cambridge University, told the Independent: “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.”
Ritalin, usually prescribed for attention deficit disorder, and Modafinil, prescribed for narcolepsy, are some of the most favoured ‘performance enhancers’ named by the report of a joint Academies workshop into Human Enhancement and the Future of Work, published online on Wednesday.
These drugs are being chosen by students and academics alike because they “do not produce extreme changes in mood that usually accompany recreational use, such as a ‘high’ or ‘rush’, and do not lead to obvious physical dependence” the report says.
However Professor Sahakian pointed out research into the long term effects of taking such drugs had not been explored.
The report also explored how use of 'cognitive enhancing' drugs had reached the workplace. 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.”
A 2011 study found that modafinil reduces impulsive behaviour and improves cognitive flexibility in sleep-deprived doctors. Unlike caffeine, which in higher doses is accompanied by tremor and heart palpitations, this is not seen with Modafinil.
However neuroscientist Jack K Lewis blogged on Huffington Post UK about the dangers of believing the promise of such 'wonder' drugs in November saying one study "highlighted the gap between people's expectations and the actual effects of such substances.
"In sleep deprived individuals a single dose of modafinil does have a strong positive effect on executive function and improvement in memory - an effect that wears off during continued sleep deprivation.
"But were they to take a single dose when not sleep deprived, they would find it has the opposite effect - under these conditions it actually induces drowsiness. Furthermore, repeated doses of modafinil when not sleep deprived increases both positive and negative affect, which means you would simultaneously feel slightly happier and more anxious.
"My message to school kids (or their parents for that matter) who might be considering buying into the promise of Ritalin-enhanced grades? Don't believe the hype."
There are serious ethical implications of enhancements like these being necessary for jobs or degrees. In the introduction the report states: “Enhancement could benefit employee efficiency and even work–life balance, but there is a risk that it will be seen as a solution to increasingly challenging working conditions, which could have implications for employee wellbeing.”
Jackie Leach Scully, an ethicist at Newcastle University, told the Guardian: "We've worked very hard in this country and elsewhere to put in place legal requirements to have tolerable working conditions and the last thing we'd want to see happening is for that to slip away."
The Human Enhancement and the Future of Work report also explored how technology such as bionic arms could be used as physical enhancements in the workplace.