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Is Cognitive Enhancement a Problem in Australia?

Sangoiri/Adobe

Credit: Sangoiri/Adobe

By Cynthia Forlini

Just because the non-medical use of cognitive stimulants isn’t common, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem.

“Cognitive enhancement” is a catch-all term for the improvement of cognitive function: attention, alertness and memory. It has caught our attention because it is thought to be the main motive for the non-medical use of prescription stimulants like methylphenidate (Ritalin) and modafinil by university students.

People who take these stimulants believe they help gain an edge in competitive environments despite weak scientific evidence to support their so-called enhancement effects in healthy individuals. Over the past decade, international studies have contributed to our understanding about who takes stimulants, when and why. One question lingers: is it a problem?

These stimulants are scheduled as “drugs of addiction” that are illegal to possess without a prescription. A doctor would not prescribe their use to otherwise healthy individuals. Peers, colleagues and family members with prescriptions for stimulants are the major sources of tablets diverted for non-medical use. Others buy them online.

Exact global figures for the prevalence of the non-medical use of prescription cognitive stimulants remain elusive. Studies vary in the measures and methods they report, which makes them hard to compare. In students, results from the USA suggest usage rates ranging from 5% to 35%. In Australia, studies have reported a narrower range: between 6.3% and 10.9% of students used a stimulant for enhancement in their lifetime (6.6% in New Zealand).

In the general population, data from 2012 suggest that around 2.4% of Australians have used a stimulant non-medically. These rates are generally considered low, especially compared with the use of more readily available substances such as high energy drinks, caffeine and alcohol. Just because the non-medical use of stimulants isn’t common, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem.

Looking for evidence of harm or adverse effects in those taking stimulants non-medically might provide a better answer. Using prescription stimulants is generally associated with disturbances in sleep, appetite, cardiac rhythm and mental health, but few of these effects have been officially reported as a result of non-medical use.

Little evidence of the harm students may be experiencing doesn’t mean there is none. The problematic aspects of the practice could be elsewhere, or people may not be reporting side-effects because they fear legal consequences.

Investigating the motives behind non-medical stimulant use for cognitive enhancement is also stirring up concerns for the overall health of students. Common motives for use include improving concentration, focus, wakefulness, better marks and some recreational uses.

Some researchers are suggesting that students use stimulants to compensate for sleep deprivation or cope with stress associated with a variety of competing demands (e.g. studies, sports, paid work and social activities). Others have proposed that the non-medical use of stimulants is a mode of self-medication for symptoms of depression caused by disinterest and lack of motivation. We don’t yet know why students turn to stimulants to manage these issues instead of seeking medical attention or using non-pharmacological approaches such as sleep, diet and exercise.

The ethical issues in the non-medical use of stimulants for enhancement are complex. Acceptability of their use among students is generally quite low. Part of the reason might be due to the parallels with doping in sports (e.g. inappropriate possession of a substance and gaining an unfair advantage over peers). However, cognitive enhancement appears to be socially embedded, suggesting that other factors might be trumping individual morals. Many of the risk factors for use have socio-economic underpinnings, such as university location, gender, low or average academic performance, fraternity membership and a history of drug use.

Peer groups are potentially coercive environments. On the one hand, an individual who will not take a stimulant might feel disadvantaged in a group where it is common. On the other hand, the perception that stimulant use is common among one’s friends might make it seem more acceptable.

Whether and on what basis we deem the non-medical use of stimulants a problem in Australia, or not, remains an open question. There is plenty of evidence available to inform this decision, but a conclusion will automatically raise another question: who will be responsible for addressing risk factors or governing the non-medical use of stimulants in competitive environments?


Cynthia Forlini is a Research Fellow at Sydney Health Ethics, The University of Sydney.