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.
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.
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.
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.
Treatment for ADHD
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.
"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."- (Sapa, October 2009)