Uni scientist advocates ‘smart drugs’ for students

A University scientist who admitted to using cognitive enhancers has said that in some cases students should also take drugs to improve their academic work.

Dr Anders Sandberg, a neuroscientist at the James Martin 21st Century School, called for a rethinking of policies on the use of cognitive enhancers in universities, saying that the use of such drugs could help maximise intellectual performance.

They ought to be viewed as a “tool in the toolbox”, he suggested, like caffeine, herbal supplements or good time-management.

“Of course you need to consider whether this is going to be a good tool,” Sandberg said, speaking to The Oxford Student. “If it’s safe, students should be allowed to take cognitive enhancement drugs. There are of course other ways to enhance yourself, like exercise and getting enough sleep, if you don’t have access to the pill.”

“I think it’s important to take charge of one’s own life, kind of do self-enhancement, but you need to find the tools that actually work best… If the students want to be responsible for that, I think they should do it.”

Sandberg admitted to using Modafinil, a drug commonly prescribed for narcoleptics, on days he feels he needs to be at his best — when attending conferences, rushing to meet deadlines, or working on difficult analytical projects.

“I’m now officially out of the closet — no, not that closet, the other one, about taking cognition enhancer drugs,” he said. Sandberg said he did not consult a doctor, but did do extensive research on the possible side effects and dangers of the drug, which he buys online.

The University has cautioned against using cognitive enhancers.

A University spokesperson said: “We would strongly advise students against the practice of taking drugs that have not been specifically prescribed to them as this is dangerous and can be illegal. We would also urge that they report anyone trying to sell them drugs to the police.”

Sandberg has called for a reconsideration of policies like the University’s.

He said: “From an ethical standpoint, if we are at a university to get skills, critical knowledge and go out into the world and do things, and the drugs help, then it might actually be a good thing to enhance. ”

“I think it makes ethical sense to try to change those legal norms [restricting the use these drugs].”

“If a student thinks ‘this might actually help me’, considered the legal and practical angles, checked out the side-effects of the drugs, looked at the literature and done a bit of ethical soul searching, then yes, they should be allowed to use enhancers.”

Dr Keith Brain, a researcher in the Department of Pharmacology, said universities should oppose students taking cognitive enhancer drugs, arguing they are not safe, their use is unfair and they are not prescribed for this purpose.

“These are prescription drugs, and are currently not legally prescribed for cognitive enhancement in healthy people,” Brain said.

Sandberg countered that other cognitive enhancing drugs such as caffeine and herbal remedies have side effects just as pharmaceuticals do. “People rarely consider their morning tea or coffee a cognition enhancing drug, despite their caffeine content,” he said. “It’s actually quite odd, we make jokes about people hanging out at Starbucks too much and how jittery they get. But if you enhance yourself with a pill, it seems more sinister.”

A poll of 1,400 scientists and researchers in Nature, a scientific journal, found that that one in five had used cognitive enhancers. 62 percent of those had taken Ritalin while another 44 percent had taken Modafinil, the drug Sandberg uses.

Studies using psychological tests indicate that most cognitive enhancers help mental performance by between 10 and 20 percent, with low performers tending to improve more than high performers.

Sandberg said: “In my opinion it doesn’t matter whether I make myself better by changing my environment, my psychology, technology or my body, only the results.”