Smart Drugs

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List of smart drugs:

Main Characteristics

Historical Overview


Important Dates


Ethical & Health Issues

Although, smart drugs represent a great potential in cognitive enhancement, several issues are linked with them. There are three main areas, which are prevalently discussed; fairness, health risks, and the legal problems. In addition, it is not certain how many students and academics actually consume smart drugs as a cognitive enhancement.


The use of smart drugs at academia is sometimes presented as ‘academic doping’. Many substances which are considered to be smart drugs are banned in professional sport. WADA argues that they could bring unfair advantages to athletes. However, it is not clear whether the advantage they provide, could be considered unfair also at academia. Namely, there seems to be no equality, which the usage of smart drugs could corrupt. There are many factors, which affect academic success and they vary among each member of academia. Students and academics are born with certain amount of skills, which is not equally distributed. In addition, the performance at academia is influenced by the environment to which students and academics belong and could be increased by nutrition or a hired tutor.[1]

Schermer and her colleagues point out that modafinil, one of the most used smart drug, prove to be beneficial especially among individuals with sleep deprivation or which innate cognitive performance is lesser than average. The benefit for healthy or average population was not demonstrated.[2] This could on the one hand, support Bostrom and Sandberg’s claim, that cognitive enhancement does not necessarily imply inequality, but it could make the society more equal.[3] On the other hand, the efficiency of the smart drugs as an enhancement could be doubted. Although that it could positively affect equality, Solomon and his colleagues argue that the use of smart drugs is not distributed equally. An increased usage of smart drugs appears primarily at the most prestigious universities and the members of academia, who consume them are already the smartest members of society.[4] If the smart drugs are effective, it could help them to achieve the edge of cognitive performance, which is not available for the rest of society.

The proponents of cognitive enhancement often argue that the smart drugs’ research should be supported. Schermer and her colleagues object, however, that it is unclear why this kind of research should be supported rather than malaria’s research. Additionally, they argue that the research could have unexpected effects even if it prove to be successful. It could cause the pressure on individuals to take smart drugs in order to avoid underperformance.[2]

Health risks

Ragan and his colleagues, who compared several surveys concerning efficiency of smart drug in cognitive enhancement, argue that results vary and even contradicts one another. There are studies which claim positive effect on cognitive enhancement, other studies do not conduct any significant result and finally certain studies even prove impairment of cognitive performances. In addition, enhancement of a certain cognitive skill could be accompanied by an impairment of another cognitive skill. Consequently, there is no sufficient evidence for conclusive claim regarding smart drugs’ affection of human cognitive enhancement, yet.[5]

Although Ritalin or Adderall are not significantly addictive when they are consumed orally, Ragan and his colleagues point out that they are considerably addictive when they are consumed injected or nasally. These types of consummation also increased risks which these substances could cause.[5] Additionally, Cakic argues, that the long-term use of these substances and the possible risks linked with it were not sufficiently examined.[1]

Ragan and his colleagues introduce the research conducted by European Medicines Agency (EMA), which review modafinil. EMA concluded that the risks which the use of modafinil contains are acceptable in the case of narcolepsy, but the drugs should not be prescribed in the cases of less severe diseases as sleep apnoea or shift-work sleep disorder. Ragan and his colleagues argue that due to this conclusion EMA would not approve the usage of modafinil for human cognitive enhancement.[5]

The presentation in media

The presentation of smart drugs in media is also controversial. Racine and Forlini point out that the press tents to describe smart drugs in an optimistic way as an enhancement and overlooks the lack of evidence and long-term risks, which are well known.[6] Partridge and his colleagues argue that this is not just a fault of journalists. In many cases, arguments in media are based on the similarly exaggerative claims of over-optimistic researchers.[7] Despite the fact, that this way of presentation could misinform the audience, it is considered illegal in certain countries. There were developed guidelines against encouraging of non-medical usage of drugs.

The actual number of users

It is difficult to claim, how widespread the usage of smart drugs as a cognitive enhancement is. Schermer and her colleagues stress that the data collected might not represent the real state of world. Although, there are data shows that approximately 2.4% of Dutch students use smart drugs on prescriptions for cognitive enhancement, the research indicates that the number might be considerably higher.[2] In addition, Franke and his colleagues report that even though they results show that only 1.3% students use smart drugs on prescription for cognitive enhancement in Germany, 30% of students did not fill questionnaire. They conclude, that at least some of them also use smart drugs on prescription for cognitive enhancement, but the precise number is unknown.[8]

Public & Media Impact and Presentation

Public Policy

Rose claims that the public policy regarding smart drugs is confusing. While certain substances as caffeine, alcohol or nicotine is legal, some are legal but unacceptable in certain occasions as steroids, some substances could be purchased only with prescription as Ritalin or Adderall and finally some substances are illicit, as LSD or psilocybin.[9]

Ragan and his colleagues identify various ways how smart drugs on prescription could be acquired. The majority of them are illegal, however. Firstly, the drugs could be off-label prescribed by enhancer’s doctor, which is legal. Secondly, the people, who intend to use them could fake an illness on which these drugs are official prescribed as ADHD, but it is illegal. An illegal way is also their purchase via on online pharmacies. This way is also potentially dangerous, since the customer could receive something else, which could harm or even kill him or her.[5]

Related Technologies, Projects, or Scientific Research


  1. 1.0 1.1 CAKIC, V. Smart drugs for cognitive enhancement: ethical and pragmatic considerations in the era of cosmetic neurology. Journal of Medical Ethics. 35(10), 2009, 611–615. Doi: 10.1136/jme.2009.030882.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 SCHERMER, Maartje et al. The Future of Psychopharmacological Enhancements: Expectations and Policies. Neuroethics, 2(2), 2009, 75–87. Doi: 10.1055/s-0030-1268417.
  3. BOSTROM, Nick, SANDBERG, Anders. Cognitive Enhancement: Methods, Ethics, Regulatory Challenges. Science and Engineering Ethics, 15(3), 2009, 311–341. Doi: 10.1007/s11948-009-9142-5.
  4. SOLOMON, Luis M., NOLL, Rebekka C., MORDKOFF, David S. Cognitive Enhancements in Human Beings. Gender Medicine, 6(2), 2009, 338–344. Doi: 10.1016/J.genm.2009.06.003.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 RAGAN, C. Ian, BARD, Imre, SINGH, Ilina. What should we do about student use of cognitive enhancers? An analysis of current evidence. Neuropharmacology, 64(1), 2013, 588–595. Doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2012.06.016.
  6. RACINE, Eric, FORLINI, Cynthia. Cognitive Enhancement, Lifestyle Choice or Misuse of Prescription Drugs?: Ethics Blind Spots in Current Debates. Neuroethics, 3(1), 2008, 1–4. Doi: 10.1007/s12152-008-9023-7.
  7. PARTRIDGE, Bradley J. et al. Smart Drugs "As Common As Coffee": Media Hype about Neuroenhancement. PLoS ONE, 6(11), 2011, 1–8. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0028416.
  8. FRANKE, A. G. et al. Non-Medical Use of Prescription Stimulants and Illicit Use of Stimulants for Cognitive Enhancement in Pupils and Students in Germany. Pharmacopsychiatry, 44(2), 2011, 60–66. Doi: 10.1055/s-0030-1268417.
  9. ROSE, Steven P. R. 'Smart Drugs': do they work? Are they ethical? Will they be legal?. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 3, 2002, 975–979. Doi: 10.1038/nrn984.