College Students Should Be Allowed to Take Smart Drugs

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Monday, November 2, 2015

If you could take a pill that would help you study and get better grades, would you? Off-label use of “smart drugs” – pharmaceuticals meant to treat disorders like ADHD, narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s – are becoming increasingly popular among college students hoping to get ahead, by helping them to stay focused and alert for longer periods of time. But is this cheating? Should their use as cognitive enhancers be approved by the FDA, the medical community, and society at large? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?

  • Anjan ChatterjeeColor90px


    Dr. Anjan Chatterjee

    Professor, UPenn & Chair of Neurology, Pennsylvania Hospital

  • Nita Farahany 90px


    Nita Farahany

    Professor, Duke University & Director, Duke Science & Society

  • Eric-Racine 90px Official


    Eric Racine

    Director, Neuroethics Research Unit, IRCM

  • Nicole Vincent90pxOfficial


    Nicole Vincent

    Assoc. Prof. of Philosophy, Law, and Neuroscience, Georgia State University

    • Moderator Image


      John Donvan

      Author & Correspondent for ABC News

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Anjan ChatterjeeColor90px

For The Motion

Dr. Anjan Chatterjee

Professor, UPenn & Chair of Neurology, Pennsylvania Hospital

Dr. Anjan Chatterjee is the Frank A. and Gwladys H. Elliott Professor and Chair of Neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital. He co-edited Neuroethics in Practice: Mind, Medicine, and Society and The Roots of Cognitive Neuroscience: Behavioral Neurology and Neuropsychology, and he wrote The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art. He is or has been on the editorial boards of American Journal of Bioethics: Neuroscience, Behavioural Neurology, Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology, Neuropsychology, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, The Open Ethics Journal and Policy Studies in Ethics, Law and Technology. He was awarded the 2002 Norman Geschwind Prize in Cognitive Neurology by the American Academy of Neurology. He is a founding member of the Board of Governors of the Neuroethics Society, the past president of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics, and the past president of the Behavioral and Cognitive Neurology Society.

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Nita Farahany 90px

For The Motion

Nita Farahany

Professor, Duke University & Director, Duke Science & Society

Nita Farahany is a leading scholar on the ethical, legal, and social implications of biosciences and emerging technologies, particularly those related to neuroscience and behavioral genetics. At Duke University, she is the director of Duke Science & Society, the Duke MA in Bioethics & Science Policy, and a professor of law and philosophy. In 2010, she was appointed by President Obama to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, and continues to serve as a member. Farahany presents her work widely including to audiences at the Judicial Conferences for the Second and Ninth Circuits, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy, and by testifying before Congress. She is an elected member of the American Law Institute, Chair of the Criminal Justice Section of the American Association of Law Schools, on the Board of the International Neuroethics Society.

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Eric-Racine 90px Official

Against The Motion

Eric Racine

Director, Neuroethics Research Unit, IRCM

Eric Racine is the director of the Neuroethics Research Unit and associate research professor at the IRCM (Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal). He also holds academic appointments at the University of Montreal (Bioethics and Medicine) and McGill University (Neurology and Neurosurgery and Bioethics). The author of Pragmatic Neuroethics, Racine is a pioneer researcher in neuroethics and a prolific author of peer-reviewed papers, chapters, and columns published in leading bioethics, neuroscience, social science, and medical journals. He is a member of the advisory board of the Institute for Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research; member of the DANA Alliance for Brain Initiatives; and associate editor of the journal Neuroethics. He has been involved in seminal events and international conferences in neuroethics. He was a visiting fellow at the Brocher Foundation (Switzerland), the International Institute of Biomedical Ethics at Uppsala University (Sweden), and the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Munich (Germany).

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Nicole Vincent90pxOfficial

Against The Motion

Nicole Vincent

Assoc. Prof. of Philosophy, Law, and Neuroscience, Georgia State University

Nicole Vincent obtained her PhD in the philosophy of tort law in 2007 from the University of Adelaide in Australia. She subsequently spent three years in the Netherlands working on a project entitled "The Brain and The Law,” before returning to Australia for another three years to kick start the Australian Neurolaw Database project. In 2013 she joined Georgia State University as associate professor of philosophy, law, and neuroscience. The concept of responsibility occupies center stage in Vincent's work. She has written on such topics as the compatibility of responsibility and determinism, medical interventions to make criminal offenders competent for execution, how neuroscience and behavioral genetics fit into criminal responsibility adjudication procedures, tort liability for failure to use cognitive enhancement medications, and whether people who live unhealthy lifestyles should have de-prioritised access to public health care resources and to organ transplants.

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Declared Winner: For The Motion

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Voting Breakdown:

56% voted the same way in both pre - and post-debate votes(25% voted FOR Twice, 27% voted AGAINST Twice, 4% voted UNDECIDED Twice). 44% changed their minds (1% voted FOR then changed to AGAINST, 1% voted FOR then changed to UNDECIDED, 14% voted AGAINST then changed to FOR, 3% voted AGAINST then changed to UNDECIDED, 20% voted UNDECIDED then changed to FOR, 5% voted UNDECIDED then changed to AGAINST).| Breakdown Graphic

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    • Comment Link Patrick Kane Monday, 11 April 2016 11:04 posted by Patrick Kane

      The fact that we even have exams in college is wrong in the first place. Higher education is overrated, and on top of that you are forced to take an exam. It is time we started going to talent apprenticeships and completely forget about college

    • Comment Link Jeremy D Tuesday, 19 January 2016 11:59 posted by Jeremy D

      I think this type of conversation has been going on for too long. The fact is that people will always be looking for an edge. Whether they do it legally or illegally, just look at the disgraceful doping situation the world faces!

      If free thinking adult sovereign humans want to improve their braind with drugs, let them go ahead and do it. If the drug is something as safe as modafinil, why not! It's their life, they want to compete with others trying to reach the same goal!

      If you start drug tests in academia, you'll just have the same research chemical situation you see in prisons, where dangerous chemicals are being ingested because they don't show on drug tests!

    • Comment Link Tyler Sunday, 17 January 2016 20:41 posted by Tyler

      I have used "smart drugs" in college a fair amount of times and am absolutely against the notion that "College students should be allowed to take "smart drugs"". I'm highly confident that none of the debaters, besides Nita, have EVER USED smart drugs in their lives. They, similarly to other policy makers live in a fantasy world where knowledge is gained from text books and research-based polls only. I think Nita had a very strong argument but felt she lives in a somewhat utopian fantasy as well, where everyone has freedom of choice and no one abuses anything. Of all the students I knew that had legal prescriptions to Adderall, they all, without exception, used the "smart drug" while and for drinking and partying. It lets you drink twice as much and party twice as hard. Of course that's safe for 18-19 year old students around the world. You would soon not want to party unless you had the drug. Addiction is my biggest issue that was under appreciated and addressed within the debate. Students would also get to a point where they felt they NEEDED the (drug) to do school work, or even just be productive human beings. I'm not referring to only the prescribed students but all of the interested friends, acquaintances and class mates that could get their hands on the drugs as well. To emphasize synthetic means to being a highly productive individual or student is absurd. We need to emphasize the effective ways and habits in which people have been utilizing to succeed for hundreds of years. Did Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs, NEED synthetic means to achieve great things? Any lastly, if you truly want freedom of choice for students, legalizing heroin and meth. They will study much, much faster and sleep much better. Cause hey, it's their choice, and that's what's truly important right!?...

    • Comment Link Carol Monday, 11 January 2016 12:48 posted by Carol

      Related topic: Senior citizens using smart drugs in the workplace in order to keep up with their ever expanding workloads including new software with steep learning curves! Help I'm drowning!

    • Comment Link BL Little Friday, 08 January 2016 02:17 posted by BL Little

      After listening to a rebroadcast of this debate I found that it sidestepped the issue of the harmful effects of these stimulants because the data was insufficient or inconclusive. The same justification was used in the early days of OxyContin and patients felt ok because it was a prescribed medication by us the doctors. The addictive qualities of Oxy were later found to be similar to Heroin which was obvious from the start to us working in the clinics that prescribed them. Similarly the stimulants in this debate have addictive qualities very close to the methamphetamines found in the streets and for those drugs the evidence is clear. I am a primary care physician who has worked in equal measure in poor and affluent communities and have lately been watching 5 – 10 new patients, 18 – 30 years old, presenting weekly to newly acquire or refill prescriptions for these stimulants, it is on the verge of becoming an epidemic. You only have to note the short supply of product in pharmacies over the last 3 years to know this (example DC and NYC) I have also watched over the last 10 years many individuals gain tolerance to these drugs while the drugs negatively affected their mood, function and relationships subsequently requiring very high doses. You only need to assist a few patients who present to you feeling the above effects on Adderall 30 mg 4 times a day or more off of this regime before you fully realize the harmful addictive qualities of this class of drugs. I found it distressing that none of your debaters addressed these real harmful effects of these drugs on patients and they are the experts so they should know and let us decide on the potential use with the whole truth in front of us.

    • Comment Link Ed Saturday, 02 January 2016 19:30 posted by Ed

      The introduction of any added agent in a competitive field creates an artificial standard for human performance as it relates to the dispersion of results that one might see in a bell curve. The overall effect on society is temporary unless the drug alters our DNA, which it may but only after a considerable time. And if the introduction of these enhancement drugs, made "necessary" by the top most performers, really is an intended choice for everyone then who is asking for us to compete at such a level?

      Mindfulness is a much more salient lesson. It also provides individuals with the ability to focus and be aware of their existence and thoughts...without drugs. There are other methods as well, but again, it appears we can't get over the idea that somehow taking a pill for whatever the problem is provides a superior solution in all cases. I suppose all those hours of yoga have also been wasted.

    • Comment Link Air Friday, 11 December 2015 22:00 posted by Air

      I took Modafinil for about 10 days and almost had a nervous breakdown. I was a mess. I worked on a grant proposal and slept less and less each night until the last day, when I slept for only 3 hours. I couldn't make good choices. I spent far too long working on aspects of the grant that were of little importance. I forgot to move around, eat, sleep. My back hurt, my neck hurt. My mind spun out. I stopped taking it and slept for weeks. I'm an adult, 35 years old, accustomed to taking Ritalin and caffeine. I can only imagine how much it would have messed me up in college.

    • Comment Link sam Friday, 20 November 2015 23:13 posted by sam

      I am surprised at moderator to bring this to this level of discussion! Drugs are to fix problems - they should NOT be taken by whole society to compete and stay up and become workaholic!
      Sorry guys who has not heard of organic milk vs bst fed and antibio fed cows? How about GMO food? How about credit crisis - another 'we know what we are doing' - thank you very much. NO - greed is what we know - we as humanity can do lot of damage if try to become more than we can. Let me know when you can convince yourself how international students will compete, or driving like insane or give it to truck drivers or air plane pilots or a doctor doing surgery. And we of course have no problem eating gmo food now - wait for another decade or two and we will say 'well we knew it was not good' - Its insanity for these educated people to promote drugs - which few rich kids will afford and really push down hardworking society.

    • Comment Link Max Exter Wednesday, 18 November 2015 23:08 posted by Max Exter

      Interesting show. I'm a little surprised to (so far, I'm still listening) not have any substantive information on side effects of stimulants, such as anxiety and appetite suppression. Also, doses generally have to go up over time as your body gets used to the drug.

      My main concern in a campus environment is that so many instructors tend to grade on a curve. Assuming the drugs actually work to improve the academic performance of students, that curve will be raised. I believe that this would have a coercive effect on students who are resistant to taking the drugs.

      There are certainly reasons for some students to have access to these drugs, particularly those who suffer from executive function related disorders. But those people are required to see psychiatrists regularly to make sure that the drugs aren't adversely affecting everyday life. This is extremely important to do, and would be very difficult to do with a significant portion of the population. They are powerful medicines with very specific purposes and we should be wary of dramatically increasing their scope.

    • Comment Link John Tuesday, 17 November 2015 21:14 posted by John

      "Smart" drugs for college students?
      And not for anybody else?
      Wow, how classist can you get?
      Oh, that's right. This is Public Radio.

    • Comment Link Joel Taylor Saturday, 14 November 2015 17:45 posted by Joel Taylor

      There exists nothing measurable by which to assess risk of behavioral harm; as in, for example, the risk of triggering mood swings (manic breakouts, over-confidence, irritability, aggression, follow-on depression, anxiety or schizophrenia). These behavioral dimensions are real, though ephemeral and throughout the literature closely linked with this category of drugs.

      This is not to weigh against the individual's free choice in determining whether to use these medications.

      But the obvious absence of biologically-based measurements to objectively and more definitively assess benefit and risk leaves at least this listener with the impression that the speakers were debating in the blind.

    • Comment Link Max Armishaw Monday, 09 November 2015 12:24 posted by Max Armishaw

      I just watched the debate and I am in the UK.
      The debaters talked mainly about drugs that are prescription only.
      I got the impression that this debate must be at least 10 years old as Smart drugs are freely available and legal here and in the US.
      Many from Health food outlets or specialist suppliers.
      Not once did I hear the word Nootropics.
      Nita Farahany was the only panelist to give a good presentation and responses.

    • Comment Link Rob Sunday, 08 November 2015 15:25 posted by Rob

      We'll all agree nature abhors a void. If I was the CEO of a major pharma, I would view this as an untapped market. I would instruct both my research and marketing teams to exploit this business opportunity.

    • Comment Link David Warshaw Thursday, 05 November 2015 23:39 posted by David Warshaw

      Nicole Vincent is a statist.
      -Hates competition
      -Only focuses on the boogeyman of inequality.

      Her arguments were nonsensical.
      Happy the crowd saw through her lack of argument and incoherent statist thought.

    • Comment Link Dhairya Wednesday, 04 November 2015 23:50 posted by Dhairya

      I am former college policy debater and a huge fan of IQ2. I was really let down by the quality of this debate. There was no substantive clash on both sides and the arguments advanced by the negative were not the strongest arguments that could have been presented against the motion.

      The negative's arguments required far too many leaps of logic and imagining an improbable hypothetical world to be effective. Here's a couple of suggestions for better arguments that would have invited clash and more. The first is to get at the equality question.

      1. Student athletes are subject to anti-doping rules by the NCAA, which is outside of the purview of the university. So by allowing students to use smart drugs, you would disadvantage student athletes. And you could argue with the demands of sports, the need for smart drugs is even more necessary for students. The internal link to diversity is that student sports draw significantly from under represented minority populations. The double standard against student athletes would disadvantage them and also contribute to the larger inequality question.

      2. As an audience member noted, it is illegal to take drugs like Ritalin without a prescription. Similar to how universities enforce dry campuses and prohibit illegal drug consumption, they have a legal responsibility to enforce the law.

      Now you may not agree with the positions above, but they would lay the ground work for a substantive debate. You can extend the arguments to argue explore issues in ethics, efficacy of prohibition policies, and the risks of using smart drugs in general.

    • Comment Link David Sommers Wednesday, 04 November 2015 11:19 posted by David Sommers

      Absolutely against - the efficacy is limited, the FDA will never approve this indication as no one will ever do the needed trials, and if at risk kids use them this way they will end up in my office one day seeking help

    • Comment Link jdgalt Tuesday, 03 November 2015 14:54 posted by jdgalt

      So what if it does? College is not a sports competition, and neither is the resulting job success. The economy is not a zero-sum pie.

    • Comment Link John Deegan Monday, 02 November 2015 23:33 posted by John Deegan

      Since WWII amphetamines have been in used to keep soldiers/airmen alert, in the 1950's my mother's middle-class friends used them to lose weight, clean the house, etc. They have been used for at least 50 years by college students as a study aid.
      As we have progressed amphetamine to dextroamphetamine to methamphetamine to Adderall and the multitude of other cognitive enhancers there have been occasions of abuse, particularly in the smoking of meth. There is abuse of alcohol as well.
      These enhancers should be available under supervision, to the elderly, juveniles with diagnosed need, and others.

    • Comment Link Mike K Monday, 02 November 2015 23:29 posted by Mike K

      In my opinion, if you're going to tell someone they don't have a right to determine their own body chemistry, you should have a really convincing reason. Over the past 100 years, the prohibitionist impulse in the US and its friend moral panic have done much to erode our sovereignty over our minds and bodies.

    • Comment Link Adam Benning Monday, 02 November 2015 16:00 posted by Adam Benning

      Supposing that the drugs are prohibitively expensive, the practice unfairly favors wealthier students. While there are plenty things in life that already do that, I don't think we should allow for more, given the opportunity.

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