A'Level Students discussing 'Smart Drugs'

23 January 2013

Interview with

Students at Jack Hunt School

The Naked Scientists don't just sit in the buff in the studio interviewing scientists.  Oh no!  we also get dressed and visit schools across the UK to discuss science with students.  And as part of a Wellcome Trust Society award, we visited schools to discuss a new drug trend that appears to be hitting the UK classrooms.  

Students are increasingly buying, over the internet, off prescription drugs to help with their exam revision.  They're called 'Smarter Drugs' or cognitive enhancers and 16% of American students, and 1 in 10 students here at Cambridge University, have admitted to taking these drugs.  

Here are some of the students that we've been discussing the drugs with:

John, Natasha, James, Jordan

Hannah -   So these are 17-year-old A'Level students from Nene Park Academy in Peterborough, letting us know their thoughts.  The first question that I asked them was:  Would you take these drugs?

James -   Well, we don't really know the side effects.  So, if we knew the side effects and they were mainly good then yeah, I would probably go with it, but if there were side effects like decreased age expectancy, when you come off the drug, there's less cognitive brain function then I would just go, no.

Hannah -   And you're in a definitely, "No, I wouldn't be taking these cognitive enhancers" camp.  Why is that?

John -   Well, I think if you're going to be taking this sort of thing, it's not going to be you  that's getting the good grades.  It's going to be you plus these drugs.  It's not you as a person.  It's not who you are.  It's just this performance has been put on you by the drug that you've taken, and if you went to a higher level and you're expected to perform at a level later in life, after the exams, you couldn't actually perform because you've taken the drug.

Hannah -   So, it may affect your later life for example.  YouGraduation might feel that you've got to take the drug if you go into a university and for work performance.  

So, you're in the, "Yes, I would be taking the drug" camp and in some ways, you're being accused of almost cheating.

Jordan - This whole argument is based upon that idea that this drug will be helping you in your exam results. But the same can also be same for caffeine and coffee.  Everyone takes coffee during the day to help them stay awake throughout the day, to perform better, and this drug would just be helping you to stay awake for the night, soak in more information up, and benefit you in your exams.

Cup of coffeeHannah -   So there's no difference between these cognitive enhancers and traditionally used stimulants like caffeine, or exercise, or Red Bull for example, and it's not actually cheating.  It's using something that's actually there.  

I'm getting people that are kind of, "Uhh!"  So, I'm going to turn back to your counter argument to that.

John -   Well, if you think that it's the same as caffeine or any other stimulants there then I don't think that's a reasonable argument you're looking at because if you look at caffeine for example, it's widely used across communities, and I don't think it's the intent that you're wanting to do better in your exams, so you take caffeine.  

You drink it because it's there for enjoyment purposes and if you're going to have this drug available, I think people would take it with intent to help them with their exam results.  So, it's more of a thing that you want to do for an output that you want to get from yourself.

Hannah -   So, moving on to the next point, would you allow, for example, your children to take these drugs and what do you think about people your age or even younger, taking these tablets?

Natasha -   It depends on the long term effects because at a young age, the brain is still developing, so it could interfere with this development, and it could either interfere with it negatively or it could also interfere with it slightly positively as well.

Hannah -   So, at the moment, we don't have much information on these drugs, so we don't know what might happen in terms of the plastic nature of the brain and how these drugs might affect them in a long term.

James -   15 years isn't really long enough to explore the long term side effects.  You need to go 40 or 50 years for that where this drug could improve your baseline cognitive ability or decrease it, we don't know.  

So, if they were to increase it, I would actually let my children take it because there wouldn't be side effects, it wouldn't be really bad.  They would improve them later in life and they would actually become a better person.

Hannah -   And what do you think would happen to society if the government, for example, put this as a supplement into our drinking water like they do with fluoride.  So, if everybody in the UK or everyone in the world was taking these cognitive enhancers, do you think that might have widespread social implications?  What might happen to our society?

John -   Well, I think if everybody took these drugs, it wouldn't change the intellect or performance that we've got at the moment.  It would just sort of shift people upwards as a whole collective group, which I think could have a possibly positive effect.  However, as long as we had extensive research into side effects and things that would go on if you do take the drug.

I mean, if you've taken the drug and it's boosted everybody up, then obviously, that's going to be positive because it's going to have an effect upon the community, the economy, and the business sector, and everything that we're doing.  I mean, research even would go to a higher level because we've given this performance enhancing type thing that we've got.

Hannah -   Okay, these cognitive enhancers actually, although they're shown to improve attention and ability to retain information, even so, well, we don't know - they may have a negative impact on creativity and innovative thinking.  So, do you think that might affect society?

Natasha -   Yes, it could affect society if there's no longer creativity because it would mean basically, you could end up with no new ideas, just the same thing being repeated again and again which would lead to almost like a stagnation effect.

Hannah -   A stagnated society.

James -   But if you did reduce creativity, we'd basically just have a race of robots.  Everyone would just be conformed to one way of thinking.  But if it didn't reduced= creativity, then our race would just flourish.  

It would become a really intelligent race, loads of ideas that are new, innovative.  We could actually higher ourselves up, but as John said previously, it could raise ourselves another level, but we don't know how people would react to it.  It could conflict with people whose genetic makeup we don't know actually.  So, people do go by different levels, people could go down.  There's just not enough research or information about it.

Hannah -   So now, I'm going to ask you for maybe one or two words that you think describes these cognitive enhancers from what you've heard today and what you've been discussing as a group today.

John -   I would definitely say, mysterious and artificial.

Natasha -   Unknown.

James - Intriguing.

Jordan -   Possibly beneficial.

Hannah -   And that was Year 12 students from Nene Park Academy in Peterborough, discussing "Smart Drugs'.

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