Academic Doping
Academic Doping
The Wave of the Future: Drugs to Improve the Learning Process
By Will Block

ccording to The Lancet,1 “doping” is no longer the exclusive realm of sports professionals. Instead, the use of drugs for performance enhancement has widened significantly and has now fully arrived—horror of horrors!—in the pristine world of academia. Investigating this phenomenon, the redoubtable British medical journal reports that grade-competitive students are now rapidly diving in, using Ritalin® and other “accepted” stimulatory drugs to gain a competitive edge in their studies.

For those of us who have been living the ideal of performance enhancement for much of our adult lives, albeit with nutrients as the preferred enhancers, what’s the big deal?

Well . . . for starters, all the delegates to a recent conference on the ethics of cognitive enhancement were in agreement that in the very near future, healthy individuals will step up their use of drugs to improve or enhance cognitive function. Academic enhancement is simply a nationwide trend, the wave of the future, and even The Lancet accepts this as indisputable fact.

The trend appears to have been started by parents who have been trying to improve the academic chances of their kids by putting them on Ritalin even if they have not been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—so much so, that in some schools as many as one-third of the boys are on it, even though few have been diagnosed with ADHD. Has it made a difference? Sure, and that’s why it’s moving up to higher education.

Yet the thrust of the journal article is that the use of what they call neurotechnology—including psychopharmaceuticals, brain tissue implants, and cyborg-like brain-computer interfaces—constitutes a looming ethical crisis. While the mind drugs are the only part of the equation that is currently available, experts see the inevitability of the technology; in their estimate, the development of neurotech is a trend that can’t be stopped. And more mind drugs, developed for the treatment of medical conditions, are on the way because they are proving safe for widespread off-label use and are being found to be beneficial for “perfectly” healthy people.

These new drugs will fill the gaps between serious mind-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and what is presumably normal—an area termed age-related memory loss that is not classified by the FDA as a medical condition. While some will remain under prescription control, others that prove extremely safe will be sold over the counter without the involvement of physicians. As dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons have cultivated lifestyle enhancement as a legitimate arena of practice, so neurologists and psychiatrists are likely to become trained in helping people make decisions about cognitive enhancement.

However, given the sorry state of “medical ethics,” with its view that self-interest is “selfish” and thus either immoral or at least highly suspect, some of the experts are worried. They believe that the values cherished by human society could drastically change if cognitive drug use is condoned and not condemned. What will happen to social justice and equality, they ask? What if only the wealthy can afford cognitive performance enhancers?

But at least there is one expert cited—Martha Farah, a neurologist specializing in cognition, emotion, and development at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience—who does not believe that the old egalitarian argument holds water. According to Farah, the inequality argument of the maldistribution of neurocognitive enhancement is a ruse because “Education is a cognitive enhancer that is very inequitably distributed, but society is not against education. Conversely, neurocognitive enhancers might be relatively easy to distribute widely.” Of course, there is the mechanism of the marketplace, which, if left alone, always works for the widest economic distribution; there is always more money to be made with mass market phenomena.

There are other gloom-and-doom arguments about the dangers of runaway cognitive enhancement. One is the concern for cultural diversity: human nature will result in the uncreative application of cognitive enhancement, making us less diverse. The underlying elitist idea appears to be that people should not be allowed to choose to use cognitive enhancement for humdrum (popular) choices. Another anti-cognitive argument is that cognitive enhancement would result in “loss of personality,” as is currently recognized as a characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease—although in a different direction—and that this makes it unacceptable to society. The concern here is that others will not recognize us to be the same person we once were. Then there is the argument that cognitive enhancement will take suffering out of life and the struggle to become who we would otherwise be, and this will somehow make us less human. Modern Ethics 101. Unbelievable!

Howard Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at Harvard University, seems to embrace the level of concern about the cognitive enhancement revolution. “By the time that we are aware of it, it will be too late,” he said. “I think that this change is unlikely to be stoppable, but I believe that those of us who are opposed to cognitive enhancements of individuals within the normal distribution of the population should stand up and be counted. We might just make a difference.”

Let those of us on the opposite end of the ethical spectrum stand up and be counted: Let people be free to choose to be smarter and to take whatever steps are necessary. Be proud that your interests have led you to this pro-cognitive conclusion long ago. Stand up and let others know. And don’t fall prey to the “doping” argument. “Smarting” is the way to go.

  1. Butcher J. Cognitive enhancement raises ethical concerns. Academics urge pre-emptive debate on neurotechnologies. Lancet 2003 Jul 12; 362(9378):132-3.

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