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Student use of stimulants for cognitive enhancement

Pharmacological cognitive enhancement is a topic of increasing public awareness, according to German researchers.

In the scientific literature on student use of enhancing drugs or caffeine as a study aid for academic performance enhancement, there are high prevalence rates with caffeinated substances (coffee, caffeinated drinks, caffeine tablets) but remarkably lower prevalence rates for illicit or prescription stimulants such as amphetamines or methylphenidate.

The researchers note that caffeine is the most widely used ‘wake promoting’ drug in the world, with stimulant effects on the central nervous system. A random digit dialling survey in the United States among 2,714 participants aged 25-74 showed that 78% were regular coffee drinkers and only 15% had never drunk coffee.

The researchers conducted a preliminary study of a group of students at Johannes Gutenburg University in Mainz and found lifetime prevalence rates specifically for the purpose of cognitive enhancement of 59% for coffee, 30% for caffeinated or energy drinks, and 11% for caffeine tablets.

That is, prevalence rates of the consumption of caffeine exclusively for the purpose of enhancement are much higher than prevalence rates of stimulants.

Research psychiatrist Andreas G Franke, from the Gutenberg medical centre, and philosophers Klaus Lieb and Elisabeth Hildt, say that generally speaking there are two positions concerning the question of whether there is a moral difference between substances.

On the one hand, some scholars argue there is a moral difference, citing as evidence the detrimental medical impacts on health, negative implications concerning fairness and justice and issues related to individual identity, authenticity and medicalisation of human life.

On the other hand are those who point out the similarities between caffeine and stimulant use. They argue that drug use for cognitive enhancement is in the same general category and in line with other kinds of improvements such as education, exercise or meditation. Scholars in this camp stress individual autonomy and self-creation.

The three researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with 18 healthy university students reporting non-medical use of caffeine as well as illicit prescription stimulants. They sought the students’ opinions regarding differences in general and morally relevant differences between caffeine and stimulant use.

Fewer than half of those taking part said there was a general difference between the use of caffeine and illicit prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement, while 28% did not differentiate, and 28% could not decide. At the same time, 39% stated there was a moral difference, 56% answered there was no moral difference and one participant was not able to comment on moral aspects.

“Participants came to their judgements by applying three dimensions: medical, ethical and legal. Less than half of the students see relevant differences between both substances. Medical and legal aspects play a major role, ethical reasons a minor role, which seems to be overestimated in the literature.

“Weighing the medical, ethical and legal aspects corresponded to the individual preferences of substances used for cognitive enhancement.

“However, their views only partly depicted evidence-based medical aspects and the ethical issues involved. This result shows the need for well-directed and differentiated information to prevent the potentially harmful use of stimulants.”

A report of the study was published in PLuS ONE.
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