Friday, February 01, 2008
Mike Murphy would allow drug compagnies to be use young children as genuie pigs for testing ground in New Brunswick Canada
Published: 01 February 2008
If a pill could make your pupils brainier would you let them take it?
Are your pupils’ brains the equivalent of an Apple Mac or an Atari 2600? Would it surprise you to know that by popping a pill they could improve their memory, concentration and ability to plan ahead?
It may sound like the stuff of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, but dozens of so-called “smart drugs” – brain-boosting compounds that increase academic ability – are being developed by pharmaceutical companies and military organisations, and scientists believe that in 20 years they could find their way into the classroom.
From “brain Botox” to Ritalin, the implications of these drugs, an estimated 40 plus of which are in development, are huge, especially as new chemicals are being developed that deliver bigger improvements with fewer side effects.
Scientists envisage that within decades they could be commonplace in universities, schools and the workplace, giving rise to the science fiction-like prospect of pushy parents paying for pills and children being submitted for Olympic-style drugs tests before sitting exams.
Smart drugs divide opinion like nothing else. Some scientists believe they should be embraced as an educational tool. Others see them as a threat, which could potentially coerce children into self-medicating in order to compete.
The Government is expected to release a report on the controversial subject next month. Ahead of this, The TES Magazine asks: what are smart drugs and how concerned should educators be?
Research into smart drugs, or cognitive enhancers, began after it was discovered that prescription medications such as Ritalin, which is used to treat attention deficit disorder (ADHD), and modafinil, sold as a treatment for narcolepsy, the sleep disorder, can improve the thinking skills of healthy individuals, at least under laboratory conditions.
Experiments at Cambridge University showed that modafinil improves short-term memory and planning while several studies suggest Ritalin, or methylphenidate, boosts spatial memory, the ability that helps you recall locations on a map.
Modafinil, which is commonly sold under the brand name Provigil, is already used by academics and pupils to cram for exams and presentations, and in the United States, 2.5 per cent of eighth graders (13 to 14-year-olds) were found illicitly using Ritalin by a National Institute on Drug Abuse study. Both are available over the internet, with a 100-tablet bottle selling for £20 upwards.
As more research money is ploughed into drugs for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and age-related memory loss, it’s inevitable that scientific gains in this area will be made. But should such drugs be sold to healthy individuals? And is it conceivable they will one day be used to boost performance in school?
“In a certain sense it is already happening, in that children diagnosed with ADHD are treated with Ritalin,” says Trevor Robbins, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Cambridge University. “The medication is used to reduce their disruptive behaviour at school and so prevents them being stigmatised by being expelled or suspended.”
Astonishingly, the number of prescriptions made to pupils in England for behaviour-altering drugs such as Ritalin and modafinil has risen tenfold in the past decade, from more than 48,000 in 1996-97 to more than 450,000 last year, according to the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF).
The prospect of adding smart drugs to the equation worries some experts, and not only because of fears over the long-term effects of existing medications for ADHD. Critics include Baroness Susan Greenfield, a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University and an authority on the issue. She and other academics have warned the drug may have “profound effects” on the way children think and behave.
Inevitably, not everyone feels comfortable with the idea of ambitious pupils popping pills to make them brainier. After all, what’s achievement without hard work and perseverance? But some scientists believe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge.
“Cod liver oil is taken as a cognitive enhancer,” says Dr Anders Sandberg, a neuroscientist at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, which investigates how technology will affect the human race.
“Even something as simple as eating a biscuit at the right moment can improve your performance, yet no one would complain about that except your dentist. It doesn’t matter how you bring about change. What matters is the result.
“Surely, anything that improves the ability to learn is a good thing,” says Dr Sandberg.
Research on the potential uses of smart drugs is in its early stages. Pharmaceutical companies develop drugs for diseases, not for healthy individuals, meaning their research and development budgets aren’t directed towards lifestyle drugs.
Many cognitive enhancing treatments either already exist or are in development. But no one can yet predict how governments and the public will react to their growing availability.
In the words of Dr Anders Sandberg: “The situation could change relatively quickly over the next decade. In that time we need to set out some ground rules and work out what kind of education system we want.”
Read more on this story in this week's TES Magazine, out Friday February 1