Sarah Knapton, Telegraph, August 20, 2015
A ‘smart drug’ taken by one in four students at Oxford University really does boost brain power and colleges need to consider whether it should be banned, scientists have said.
Modafinil is currently available on NHS as a treatment for narcolepsy but surveys have suggested that a fifth of university students use it to enhance performance for revising and exams after it was linked to improved cognition.
Oxford University and Harvard Medical School looked at 24 studies into modafainil and have concluded that it really does improve thinking skills, particularly in long complex tasks. It was also found to help with planning, decision making, flexibility, learning and memory, and creativity.
It is the first ‘smart drug’ found to actually work and it appears to have few side effects, say researchers.
But the scientists say the results raise serious ethical questions about whether it should be ‘classified, condoned or condemned.’
Dr Ruairidh Battleday said: “Modafinil can and does enhance some cognitive functions.
“For the first time, we have a cognitive enhancer that appears not to have significant detrimental cognitive, emotional, or physical side effects.
“This means that it is time for a wider societal debate on how to integrate and regulate cognitive enhancement. The ethical exploration is a huge and important goal for the near future: one that both scientists, politicians, and the public need to be involved in.”
A survey run by the Oxford University student newspaper The Tab showed that 26 per cent of students at the university said they had used it. One quarter of youngsters at Newcastle and Leeds claimed to have tried the drug and around one in five at universities like Imperial, Sheffield, Nottingham and Manchester.
Modafinil is usually prescribed to treat sleeping disorders and has been used in the past by the US Air Force to keep pilots alert during long distance flights.
But doctors have anecdotally complained that they are being forced to give students valium to manage withdrawal after exams because it effects sleep patterns so badly.
Professor Guy Goodwin, President of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) said: “it’s the first real example of a ‘smart drug’, which can genuinely help, for example, with exam preparation.
“Previous ethical discussion of such agents has tended to assume extravagant effects before it was clear that there were any.
“If correct, the present update means the ethical debate is real: how should we classify, condone or condemn a drug that improves human performance in the absence of pre-existing cognitive impairment?”
The results were published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology.