Doping in academia

It is widely accepted that performance-enhancing drugs have no place in sport. But what about in academia?

Doping in sport has hit the headlines recently, with Lance Armstrong finally admitting in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that he had used performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career. It is widely accepted that performance-enhancing drugs have no place in sport. But what about in academia?

Cognitive enhancers, or “smart drugs”, it is claimed, enhance the taker’s motivation and ability to concentrate and learn. We carry three Articles this week (1, 2and 3) that take a look at the issue. Although the use of cognitive enhancers in Britain is nowhere near as widespread as it is in the US, the fact that anyone with access to the internet can purchase these drugs means their use will only become more popular.

The Journal has previously covered the ethics of using cognitive enhancers (PJ 2008;280:694) and the debate continues in this week’s cover story, with some students equating the use of smart drugs to cheating and others thinking it is no worse than consuming coffee or Red Bull. What is worrying is that universities seem indifferent to doping in academia. Ten universities were asked whether they had guidance in place relating to the use of smart drugs. According to the article’s author, none of the three universities that replied had made such guidance available. We are a long way from compulsory drug testing in universities, but should they not be clear about where they stand with students who choose to take these drugs?

There is also a safety issue. Long-term studies will need to be conducted to determine the safety of using cognitive enhancers. Moreover, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency states: “Purchasing medicines from websites based overseas is potentially a risk to health. There is no guarantee that medicines purchased online meet the set standards of quality and safety that are mandatory in the UK.”

Given pharmacists’ professional ethics, we are gratified that no evidence arose to suggest that cognitive enhancers are being used in schools of pharmacy. But this issue is not going to go away and The Journal believes it can only be a matter of time before universities feel forced to issue guidance to students on the use of smart drugs.

But think on! If such doping were to become more widespread in British academia, is there a risk that it might be carried forward into professional practice, whether that be in pharmacy, medicine, law or any other sphere? We would argue that the public has a right to expect that those whom they trust to look after their health and other affairs are not doing so under the influence of any drug.

Citation: The Salvadore DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2013.11117430

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