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Drug testing could stop 'academic doping'

October 1, 2009 |  6:00 am

Ritalin

Students taking important exams could one day find themselves in the same position as professional athletes -- submitting to a drug test before the big event. The practice of students taking cognitive-enhancing drugs, such as methylphenidate, has become so common that those who don't "dope" are at an unfair advantage, argues a psychologist writing in the new issue of Journal of Medical Ethics.

Chemically enhanced academic performance is cheating, says Vince Cakic, of the department of psychology at the University of Sydney, Australia. Already, he notes, medications meant to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are used by college students to improve their test scores. And many other cognitive-enhancing medications, which he calls nootropics, are being developed for diseases such as Alzheimer's. While the ADHD drugs improve performance only modestly, future drugs for dementia may make a big difference in an individual's capacity to study and test scores. "The possibility of purchasing 'smartness in a bottle' is likely to have broad appeal to students with normal or above average cognitive functioning to begin with," he wrote

Rules prohibiting the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports fail unless athletes are subjected to routine urine tests, Cakic says. The same strategy would likely be necessary to prevent cheating in academics. According to his paper, the use of methylphenidate and amphetamines is as high as 25% on some U.S. college campuses. The most academically competitive schools are thought to have the highest usage rates of these drugs. The more students who take the drugs, the more non-cheating student are put at a disadvantage and thus may feel compelled to cheat, too.

"It is apparent that the failures and inconsistencies inherent in anti-doping policy in sport will be mirrored in academia unless a reasonable and realistic approach to the issue of nootropics is adopted," Cakic wrote.

Cheating is not the only worry for college administrators. The rampant use of nootropics may lead to serious health problems in some students who take them without a doctor's approval.

". . . there is a greater need to examine the safety and efficacy of putative nootropics in the healthy rather than only in clinical populations," he wrote. "However, the widespread non-medical use of methylphenidate suggests that students will use nootropics regardless of their safety and legality."

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Keith Beaty / Toronto Star / ZUMA Press

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