The Perse School

The 42 Lecture Series

7 Oct 2011

The 42 lecture series continues with a fascinating and challenging talk given by Professor Barbara J Sahakian of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge about the use of cognitive enhancement or ‘smart’ drugs and the ethical issues raised by their use in healthy patients.

The drugs Professor Sahakian works with are usually used to treat patients with Alzheimer’s, Schizophrenia and behavioural conditions such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). For suffers of these conditions, the impact of drugs such as Methylphenidate (more commonly known as Ritalin), Atomoxetine (a selective noradrenalin reuptake inhibitor of SNRI) and Modafinil on their cognitive function can be life changing and their use is essential.

However, as Professor Sahakian explained, these drugs also have an effect on healthy patients such as boosting cognitive function and working memory. For some, this presents a wealth of opportunity: such as improving the performance of surgeons or pilots or offering respite to shift workers. To others, however, this is premature. The Professor revealed that school and university students have begun purchasing these prescription drugs over the internet to help them with their studies. This phenomenon is particularly well researched and is most prevalent in the USA however a study completed by the student paper, Varsity, found that ten percent of Cambridge Undergraduates were using ‘smart’ drugs to help them cope with their workload.

This trend has sparked fierce debate about the use of these drugs on mentally healthy people. Professor Sahakian took the audience through the arguments put forward by supporters and critics of this practice alike, demonstrating the complex nature of this neuro-ethical issue. While some point out the benefits that these drugs could have on the performance of people in highly skilled or demanding professions, others point to the lack of research on the effects of these drugs on the healthy mind.

The use of ‘smart’ drugs by school and university students was perhaps of most interest to Perse pupils. Professor Sahakian asked the audience to consider the risks associated with taking these drugs to help with school work. She described how the brain does not reach a fully developed state until a person is in their early twenties and that therefore the use of these drugs in young people could have an impact on an individual’s adult mind. This could lead to, as yet, untold problems in the future. Again the Professor highlighted the ethical as well as medical concerns with such a practice: if some students take ‘smart’ drugs does it give them an unfair advantage over others? Will pupils feel coerced into taking drugs so that they can compete academically with their peers already using them?

Professor Sahakian’s lecture made the pupils aware of both the possibilities and the dangers presented by the use of ‘smart’ drugs. Her talk was a classic example of how The Perse benefits from its location here, in Cambridge: with links to the university, Addenbrokes and the Science Park the school is able to bring world leading experts in almost all fields face to face with the pupils not only to offer them a glimpse of their work but also to inspire them to achieve great things themselves. What is more, The 42 lectures can be attended by staff and parents as well. This demonstrates to the pupils that learning can and should be a life-long pursuit.

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