As freshers’ week looms on the horizon; a rapidly approaching tanker loaded with promises of revelry and debt, students around the country are no doubt struggling to battle an insatiable desire to get to the library and begin some serious study. Disappointingly, amidst the hectic student schedule of frying hamsters and breaking into flats to steal cheese, it soon becomes apparent that it is not possible to spend every waking minute analysing the finer points of Hamlet.

As the gargantuan beast that is the final year dissertation rears its ugly head and exams that once seemed distant spectres inevitably materialise, students often turn to alternative methods to assuage the pain of the academic workload. A reported 25% of students have experimented with nootropic drugs, in a phenomenon pejoratively referred to as ‘academic doping’. Nootropics, colloquially labelled ‘smart drugs’, are drugs that can act to improve cognitive performance in a number of ways, including motivation, attention and memory. Examples include Modafinil and Ritalin, which are used to treat the sleep disorder narcolepsy and ADHD respectively. Their use in academia, as well as other fields, is highly controversial. Not only are smart drugs only currently available by prescription, many view their use as unethical and worry about a potential slippery slope widespread smart drug use may lead us down.

A key facet of the anti-smart drugs argument is the notion of ‘cheating’. Much like steroids in sport, smart drugs give their users advantages over those who don’t consume them. While the drugs won’t induce metamorphosis and turn you into Bradley Cooper’s character in Limitless, they do allow you to study for longer periods of time with less chance of distraction, and can aid memory, making them handy for information regurgitation. Such an academic advantage could be perceived as unfair. The argument makes sense at face value but on closer examination appears problematic. Students from better schools have an advantage over their peers, as do early risers who have more chance of getting a seat in the library, or people who can afford to pay for extra tuition. Legal stimulants like caffeine are central to the revision routine of many, and work in much the same way as smart drugs – allowing students to work for longer and maintain alertness. The truth is that the playing field simply isn’t level, and there will always be multitudinous reasons for some students having an advantage over others. Smart drugs are just another way to try and get an edge. Perhaps those who feel that the use of smart drugs in academia is unfair should advocate the illegality of coffee, or private tutoring, so as to truly ensure that everyone has an equal chance of academic success.

Another key issue is accessibility. Wealthier individuals are more capable of purchasing smart drugs, which could mean that they have an unfair advantage. However, the rich can already afford private schooling, extra tuition and the ludicrous prices of textbooks. Smart drugs could even level the playing field somewhat; purchasing a pill to help concentration may be more financially viable than shelling out on a tutor. The idea that smart drugs will establish an intellectual elite feels more at home in science-fiction, after all the availability of whey protein has not lead to the development of a muscular aristocracy. Smart drugs can be seen as a neural equivalent of such nutritional supplements. The main problem, of course, is that drugs like Modafinil are only currently available by prescription; meaning only those willing to attain smart drugs through nefarious means get to enjoy their benefits.

Perhaps the only way to stop disparity in availability causing unfairness is by making smart drugs widely accessible. A caveat of this idea is that as with anything, smart drugs may have side effects. For example, Modafinil can lead to a severe rash in some individuals. It is slightly ironic that a student may opt to avoid smart drugs for health reasons when engaging in a lifestyle centred mainly on liver damage and chemical stimulation. The main problem is simply that the dangers of long term smart drug use are largely unknown, although drugs like Modafinil are deemed safe enough to be available on prescription. In addition to this, although the initial benefit of smart drugs is an alleviation of pressure, it is possible that if their use became widespread individuals may feel pressure to take smart drugs, for fear of falling behind their peers.

It is important to remember that, in contradiction to their name, smart drugs don’t necessarily make you smart. Some complain that taking smart drugs means you aren’t using your natural ability, as if taking a pill transforms you into a genius and allows you to eschew studying entirely, which is not the case. You still need to study if you take smart drugs, and it is still you doing the studying. Engaging in group study sessions or drinking coffee is a similar departure from your own ‘natural’ abilities, yet neither is regarded with such contempt. Smart drugs are mainly valuable for regurgitating facts for exams, which speaks to the current flaws of the education system. If university exams were less based on knowledge recall maybe this discussion wouldn’t need to take place.

Smart drugs definitely appear to be one of the hot topics to discuss at the moment, and present some enticing benefits, along with a host of potential dangers. Moderation and caution are always wise, but hopefully in future the choice to take smart drugs or not will be one made by educated individuals, rather than a paternalistic government. Human enhancement technology is a potentially exciting field, and eminent bioethicist John Harris reminds us that we are products of the enhancement process called evolution. Nevertheless, until further scientific research takes place and the legal system undergoes alteration, it’s probably best to stick to more traditional means of study – guzzling a litre of red bull and falling asleep gently sobbing into the tattered pages of Human Molecular Genetics.