Smart drugs: magic bullet or cheating ourselves?

Sunday 30 October, 3.45pm until 5.15pm, Lecture Theatre 1

It is estimated that around 16% of university students in the UK are taking ‘smart drugs’, medication available on prescription for conditions such as Alzheimer’s, that are now being used by healthy people to enhance memory, concentration and other cognitive abilities. Neither is it just students who are popping the pills, but their lecturers and a swathe of professionals eager to achieve that extra edge. Smart drugs inspired this year’s Hollywood film Limitless, with the tagline, ‘One pill. Anything is possible’. The scale of their use has also caused the UK’s leading expert on ‘cosmeceutical’ brain treatments, Barbara Sahakian, to speculate that students might soon have to take part in pre-exam drug tests to prevent wide-spread ‘cheating’.

Although some are now taking pills to cram more memories in, others are looking forward to a time when they can wipe them out. Investigations into the nature of post-traumatic stress disorder have discovered certain ‘amnesia’ drugs can block, dilute and even delete unwanted and unhappy memories. Once again, drugs originally used to treat disease, in this case high blood pressure and heart disease, might now be used to dull the pain of traumatic events – a discovery culturally imagined in another Hollywood film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The turn towards ‘cosmetic neurology’, a new term for the the use of drug treatments by people without disease to enhance or disable normal cognitive abilities, marks an important shift in medicine and raises difficult questions about their use. Does a move towards enhancement mark a new ethical terrain in the project of human improvement? Should we fear the use of such drugs by governments to control troublesome populations, for example? How do memories, or their lack, shape who and what we are? Can and should we distinguish between enhancement and ‘therapeutic forgetting’? And what does the bid to remember and forget say about us as a society?

Listen to session audio:


Dr Stuart Derbyshire
reader in psychology, University of Birmingham; associate editor, Psychosomatic Medicine and Pain

Professor Andy Miah
chair in science communication & digital media, University of Salford

Barbara Sahakian
professor of clinical neuropsychology, MRC/Wellcome Trust Behavioural and Clinical Neurosciences Institute, University of Cambridge

Professor Sir Simon Wessely
president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists; head of the Department of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London

Helen Birtwistle
history and politics teacher, South London school
Recommended readings
We should embrace the use of smart drugs

A Debating Matters Topic Guide covering the smart drugs debate, with an overview of the discussion and a wide range of readings both for and against.

Helen Birtwistle, Debating Matters, 2 May 2011

Are 'smart drugs' safe for students?

Students are increasingly taking neuroenhancing drugs to fight fatigue and help them concentrate. But how safe are they – and is it cheating?

Catherine Nixey, Guardian, 7 April 2011

Do 'smart drugs' really make us brainier?

It is no real surprise that the use of smart drugs is on the increase. It is an attractive proposition - becoming as alert and efficient as we have the potential to be, when we need to be.

Philippa Roxby, BBC News, 4 April 2011

A Ban on Brain-Boosting Drugs Is Not the Answer

Simply calling the use of study drugs

Matt Lamkin, Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 February 2011

Can You Build a Better Brain?

Blueberries and crossword puzzles aren’t going to do it. But as neuroscientists discover the mechanisms of intelligence, they are identifying what really works.

Sharon Begley, Newsweek, 4 January 2011

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