Should Students Be Tested for Brain Drugs?

By McCarton Ackerman 11/07/12

Arguments that "cognitive enhancers" put non-drugged students at an unfair disadvantage could lead to college drug tests.

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It's no secret that college students have long used prescription drugs like Ritalin for late-night study sessions. Now the widespread use of these "cognitive enhancers" in academia is leading to calls for UK universities to consider random drug testing to prevent some from obtaining an unfair advantage. Drugs like Ritalin (meant to treat ADHD) and modafinil (meant to treat sleep disorders) are taken by students to keep themselves alert and active in the period leading up to exams. Professor Barbara Sahakian, a psychiatrist at Cambridge University, says that up to 16% of US students and 10% of UK students have admitted using performance-enhancing drugs to improve their academic results. “People are starting to think about drug testing," she says. "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.” In the US, drug testing in schools has already taken place at some private academies in the Atlanta area. Rx drug abuse in academia isn't limited to students; senior academics have also admitted to using cognitive enhancers on a regular basis, for reasons ranging from improving mental performance to avoiding jet lag. "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,” adds Sahakian. The one positive with this abuse of cognitive enhancers is that they don't produce mood changes or a high, and don't lead to any obvious physical dependence. But Sahakian warns that the effects of long-term use are still largely unknown.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.