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Cognitive enhancers

Is it OK to improve brain function with cognitive enhancers or 'smart drugs'?

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Argument against

Taking smart drugs to enhance brain function is cheating. People who don’t want to take them may feel pressured into it to keep up with others. Some people who want to take smart drugs may not be able to afford them, so this would increase the inequalities that already exist in society. In addition, medicines such as modafinil have not been properly tested for use in non-clinical populations.

Farah M et al. 2004. Neurocognitive enhancement: what can we do and what should we do (pdf)?


Ritalin is a drug prescribed to help children who suffer from attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), to improve their concentration. It works by stimulating the central nervous system.

It is illegal to take Ritalin if it’s not prescribed. Its short-term side-effects include insomnia and anxiety, and its long-term effects are largely unknown.

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Modafinil is in a class of drugs called ‘eugeroics’ and was originally used as a treatment for narcolepsy, a chronic neurological disorder characterised by sudden and uncontrollable episodes of sleep.

Modafinil has been used by soldiers during combat and by shiftworkers to help with sleep patterns. Would it help society if more people were able to use it and if they could access it in a regulated manner?

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Hydergine (ergoloid mesylates)

Little is known about how cognitive enhancers work, and the people taking them for enhancement reasons may be taking an unknown risk for a relatively small improvement in performance.

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Caffeine is a drug found in drinks, inclulding tea and coffee, and in some medicines. It speeds up activity in the brain and spinal cord.

Students who are not using drugs such as Ritalin to aid their revision might consider those who do to be cheating and may feel at an unfair disadvantage for not taking them. But where do you draw the line? Should stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine also be banned?

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