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Emergence of Nootropic Drugs Raises Familiar Ethical Issues

Journal article cites the lessons of doping in competitive sports to inform the ethics debate

THURSDAY, Oct. 1 (HealthDay News) -- The emerging use of cognitive-enhancing nootropic drugs, the so-called "smart drugs," in competitive academia raises ethical issues that parallel the doping controversy played out over the past 50 years in competitive sports, according to a paper in the October issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Vince Cakic, of the University of Sydney in Australia, reviewed the ethical dilemmas posed by nootropics (such as methylphenidate, modafinil and piracetam): 1) do they give users an unfair advantage, 2) will people feel coerced to use them to remain competitive, 3) should they be banned or regulated as dangerous, and 4) that whatever the ethical issues, what is the probability that prohibition will fail?

Cakic argues that the idea of nootropics giving an unfair advantage ignores genetic and socioeconomic factors that always convey advantages; with or without nootropics, the level playing field is a myth. The contention that people would feel coerced is speculative, Cakic writes, and the danger of coercion hinges on the safety of the nootropic drug in question. For example, methylphenidate aggravates mental illness, causes sleep disturbances, and is associated with cerebrovascular complications. Should this risk assessment be left to individuals or to a regulatory body? Ultimately, Cakic concludes, prohibition will only fail, as it has in sports.

"Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and it is apparent that the failures and inconsistencies inherent in anti-doping policy in sport will be mirrored in academia unless a reasonable and realistic approach to the issue of nootropics is adopted," the author writes.

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