A growing number of medical and education professionals are raising concerns that certain classes of drugs are being used to enhance the academic performance of students, Education Week reports. Although there is no such thing as "smart drugs," certain chemicals, especially those in the "nootropics" class have been shown to increase attention spans, concentration and have a positive impact on various kinds of brain activity that is conducive to studying and absorbing information.
Education Week documents a split in opinion among neuroscience professionals. While some believe that it is a bad and unsafe thing to use drugs to boost the mental performance of perfectly healthy kids, others believe that pills such as Ritalin and Adderall make up for environmental deficiencies that are detrimental to academic success.
Dr. Barbara J. Sahakian is a pioneer in nootropic studies and their impact on brain function. Her research is concentrated on modafinil, a nootropic originally used to treat narcolepsy and sleep disorders associated with night-shift work. However, she has estimated that only 10% of prescriptions for modafinil are for those purposes, with the rest being prescribed for off-label uses.
In modafinil's case, healthy individuals take the drug off-label to improve attention and working memory, particularly during fatigue; it's often given to combat jet-lag. In recent studies of both mentally ill and healthy adults, Dr. Sahakian has found modafinil improved working and spatial memory as well as the ability to identify emotions in facial expressions—often a problem for both autistic children and those under chronic stress. However, she did not find the drug improved overall learning.
In an interview with Education Week, Sahakian said that she found parental and medical concerns with side effects of nootropics to be "ironic" since widely available study aids that include caffeine as an ingredient often produce more alarming symptoms than taking modafinil.
It's hard to get accurate numbers on how widely nootropics are used for cognitive enhancement. Columbia University's National Center of Addition and Substance Abuse, which keeps keeps the data on prescription drug abuse, doesn't break out the information specific to overuse aimed at improving academic outcomes.
Yet buried in an appendix of the group's 2009 report, "Adolescent Substance Use: America's #1 Public Health Problem," its most recent one, are some interesting statistics. While less than 3 percent of secondary students reported ever using a prescription painkiller, tranquilizer, or stimulant for fun, 62 percent reported they had used a prescription stimulant in order to study or be more focused at school, and 44 percent said they had used the drugs to be more focused for a job, sports, or extracurricular activities. Nearly 13 percent said they had friends who regularly used prescription stimulants to study and focus at school or work.