Performance-enhancing drugs to help students burn the midnight oil, learn faster or have better recall at exam time could pose a major dilemma for colleges in the future, according to a paper published on Thursday.
Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, psychologist Vince Cakic of the University of Sydney, Australia, says that "nootropics" -- drugs designed to help people with cognitive problems -- are already being used off-label to boost academic performances.
Amphetamines and methylphenidates, marketed as Dexedrine and Ritalin, are time-honoured stimulants used by as many as a quarter of students in some US colleges, especially those with competitive admission standards, according to figures from US research quoted by Cakic.
These drugs are used medically to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and uncontrolled sleepiness.
A newer-generation temptation of the same class of drug is modafinil, branded as Provigil.
For boosting memory retention, says Cakic, the potential drugs include donepezil (Aricept), used to treat Alzheimer's disease; galantamine (Reminyl); and piracetam, branded as Nootropil. For more get-up-and-go, there is selegiline, or Deprenyl.
So far, these drugs offer only a modest perk in performance, but more powerful versions are in the pharmaceutical pipeline and may well have a potent allure, said Cakic.
"The possibility of purchasing 'smartness in a bottle' is likely to have broad appeal to students with normal or above-average cognitive functioning," he argues.
Cakic says the experience of campaigns to stamp out doping in sport should serve as a warning.
Performance-enhancing drugs may not only be physically dangerous, addictive and have unwanted mental side-effects, they would also be near-impossible to control, he says.
"One conjures to mind the scenario of students taken to one side, cup in hand, and asked to provide a urine sample to test officials.
"Scandal would erupt and rumours abound when the magna cum laude [top of the class] is stripped of his title for testing positive for modafinil -- a drug that gave him near-superhuman levels of mental endurance.
"As laughable as it may seem, it is possible that scenarios such as this could very well come to fruition in the future."