Academic Doping

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Academic Doping

Academic doping is the off-label use of nootropic drugs “Smart Drugs” for the purposes of improving cognitive ability. These drugs are normally used to treat neurocognitive disorders such as dementia, attention deficit disorder and schizophrenia.

Student Use

Academic doping appeared to first start among students attending extremely competitive universities. As reported in the journal Addiction, as many as one in four college students have misused the drug Adderall.

Most recently, in April 2011, McGill University in Canada published survey results from a random sample of 400 students, in which 5.4% had used a drug off-label for the purposes of cognitive enhancement. (Blackwell, Tom (2011-04-09)

“It started during finals last year, when someone suggested the University of Western Ontario student try a little helper to get him through a punishing exam schedule.

The sociology major popped one of the Adderall XR pills his friend recommended and, as advertised, found he was soon hitting the books in a new way.”

“Within maybe 20 minutes, I felt different. I felt that my brain had maybe sped up a bit. It was weird,” said the second-year undergraduate, who asked not to be named. “I just read chapter upon chapter, no worries. I was reading faster and I wasn’t getting bored by it.”

A mild form of amphetamine, or speed, Adderall is usually prescribed to patients suffering from attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Increasingly, though, Adderall, Ritalin and other ADHD medications have become favorites of healthy students, who believe the drugs’ stimulant properties can sharpen their minds while cramming for tests and writing essays.


“Although they currently offer modest improvements in cognitive performance at best, it is thought that future nootropics will encompass a wide array of drugs that enhance memory, attention, alertness, motivation, executive function, creativity or the need for sleep.

There is some evidence that drugs such as methylphenidate (Ritalin®) and modafinil (Provigil®) can enhance cognition to a small degree in people without cognitive deficits, but there are important caveats to this. What may help in one area many lead to a deficit in another area, such as up today but depressed tomorrow.

Safety Considerations

According to Dr. Nick Yates, a pediatrician and director of medical ethics for Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y., off-label usage of nootropics by people who don’t need them represents safety concerns. An MSNBC article reported that “A 2004 rat study conducted by the National Institutes of Health and McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School suggested that children who take prescription drugs for ADHD but do not have the disorder may be at higher risk for developing depressive symptoms in adulthood.” (Clayton, Victoria (2006-07-09).

For those of us who have been living the ideal of performance enhancement for much of our adult lives, albeit with nutrients as the preferred enhancers, what’s the big deal?

Well . . . for starters, all the delegates to a recent conference on the ethics of cognitive enhancement were in agreement that in the very near future, healthy individuals will step up their use of drugs to improve or enhance cognitive function.

The trend appears to have been started by parents who have been trying to improve the academic chances of their kids by putting them on Ritalin even if they have not been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—so much so, that in some schools as many as one-third of the boys are on it, even though few have been diagnosed with ADHD. Has it made a difference? Actually it has and that’s why it’s moving up to higher education. (Lancet 2003 Jul 12)

Three questions are pertinent about neuroenhancement. Should it be regarded as a form of cheating? Should it be regarded as a limited extension of medical treatment or as a legitimate lifestyle enhancement? What should we do about it?

A common concern about the use of drugs to improve physical or cognitive performance is that it gives an unfair advantage to those who take the drug over those who do not. The idea is that when a marginal student can become ever so less marginal – they can get a change to succeed that they otherwise would not have had.  This is also at the expense of others who did not make the cut.  The similarity to sports doping is obvious.

Another perspective on is that individuals using neuroenhancement are aiming to achieve something without effort—regardless of whether it involves competition—and that this therefore diminishes the value of their achievement. It is misleading to think that neuroenhancement might obviate the need for hard work or study; it is unlikely that drugs will produce a good exam mark if the subject has not studied. Instead, drugs appear to make the time spent studying more enjoyable or efficient, and these effects might be more marked in those of lower ability. If this was the case, those who are less disciplined or intelligent might gain an advantage from using drugs in conjunction with extra study. (EMBO Reports 2011 March 3)

End Game

In the not too distant future many of the major schools may require routine blood tests concurrent with onsite exams to help make the final cuts of those accepted to their schools with ongoing drug tests through their academic career.  These prized minds are going to be subject to the similar level of scrutiny that professional athletes face vis-à-vis performance enhancing drugs, just as professional sports athletes must undergo today.  A quick piss test before you can sit for the test.

But also there is the argument on why should academia reject the leveling of the playing field between students so that they can compete. Are they all not principally about learning the course content, for which assessment and competition are effective tools? One can understand drug testing for exams, which would skew the assessment’s accuracy in determining what has been learned, but drug testing during study? If a student can learn the material more efficiently and more completely with the use of nootropics, then their use should be encouraged, not banned.

Amphetamine Drug Names (From the Drug Inquirer)


Adderall amphetamine plus dextroamphetamine
[instant release]

Adderall XR amphetamine plus dextroamphetamine
[extended release]

Benzedrine amphetamine
[instant release]

Biphetamine amphetamine plus dextroamphetamine

Desoxyn methamphetamine
[instant release]

Dexedrine dextroamphetamine
[instant release]

Dexedrine SR dextroamphetamine
[extended release]

Dexedrine Spansule dextroamphetamine
[extended release]

Dextrostat dextroamphetamine
[instant release]

ProCentra dextroamphetamine
[immediate release, bubblegum flavor]

Vyvanse dextroamphetamine
with lysine (lisdexamfetamine)
[extended release


Methylphenidate Drug Names

Concerta methylphenidate hydrochloride (HCI)
[extended release]

Daytrana methylphenidate
film, transdermal
[extended release]

Focalin dextro-methylphenidate
(or, dexmethylphenidate) hydrochloride (HCI)
[instant release]

Focalin XR dextro-methylphenidate hydrochloride (HCI)
or dexmethylphenidate hydrochloride (HCI)
[extended release]

Metadate CD methylphenidate hydrochloride (HCI)
[extended release:

Metadate ER methylphenidate hydrochloride (HCI)
[extended release:
TWO- or THREE-a-day]

Ritalin methylphenidate hydrochloride (HCI)
[instant release]

Ritalin LA methylphenidate hydrochloride (HCI)
[extended release:
one-a-day, rapid onset with two peak levels]

Ritalin SR methylphenidate hydrochloride (HCI)
[extended release:
one-a-day, slower onset with more continuous delivery]

Attenta† methylphenidate hydrochloride (HCI)
[instant release]; AU

Biphentin† methylphenidate hydrochloride (HCI)
[extended release]; CA

Equasym† methylphenidate hydrochloride (HCI)
[instant release]; EU

Equasym XL† methylphenidate hydrochloride (HCI)
[extended release]; EU

Motiron† methylphenidate hydrochloride (HCI)
[instant release]; EU

Rubifen† methylphenidate hydrochloride (HCI)
[instant release]; NZ


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