How popular are “smart drugs”?

More and more often newspapers write about the topic of “smart drugs”. But is the use of cognitive enhancing drugs a real problem? Here a brief overview about some problematics found in research on cognitive enhancement prevalence.

When even fashion magazines such as Stylist write about smart drugs, it seems that the popularity of cognitive enhancement is quite clear. However the deeper into the smart drug discussion one goes, the more apparent it becomes that actual prevalence of cognitive enhancement is far from clear. Here we briefly outline just two of several problematics in research on cognitive enhancement prevalence.

A key complication is the role of the media in hyping up cognitive enhancement. By looking only at media reports, it would seem that cognitive enhancement is highly popular, even a “normal” activity, the prevalence of which, if anything, is only going to rise. Unsurprisingly, most of these claims are based primarily on anecdotal evidence, or on studies of questionable validity (Ragan, Bard & Singh, 2012). What is surprising, however, is that articles in the academic literature often refer to the same body of weak evidence, without accompanying qualifications. The University of Cambridge student newspaper survey of cognitive enhancement is perhaps the most egregious example of a poor data source that has been widely referenced in the cognitive enhancement literature.

Some authors fear that reports of high prevalence of cognitive enhancement based on studies of questionable validity can lead to misconceptions among students about how popular the phenomenon is, resulting in normalising and actually increasing use (Partridge et al. 2011; Sahakian and Morein-Zamir, 2011). Moreover, media coverage of cognitive enhancement, despite indicating low prevalence, can unintentionally inform people about the possibility of cognitive enhancers and thereby increase prevalence (Lucke, Bell, Partridge, & Hall, 2011). We need further analyses of the extent to which this “mimicry” phenomenon actually operates among students, given the ambiguous evidence in the public understanding of science (PUS) literature about the relationship between public attitudes and media coverage of neuroscience.

A second shortcoming of prevalence reports is that they tend to target student populations. One can reasonably argue that there are good scientific and practical reasons for the focus on students: they are an easily accessible sample; and cognitive enhancement seems to be practised primarily in university settings. However, even if cognitive enhancement is probably not as concentrated in other sectors as it is in the academy, it is still important to understand the movement of cognitive enhancement across sectors. University students do not only interact with other university students over the course of their studies; and, of course students eventually they leave the university. Therefore we can hypothesise that cognitive enhancement users within the university have some impact on, or engagement with, cognitive enhancement and smart drug commerce outside the university. Without more evidence on cognitive enhancement outside the academy, or about the potential of bi-directional traffic between cognitive enhancement use in the academy and in work-related and other public contexts, it will be difficult to ground any generalised analyses of cognitive enhancement. 

It goes without saying that these patterns of smart drug engagement and circulation may share some general aspects across settings, but that local context will play an important part in shaping these dynamics. Currently the majority of existing studies on cognitive enhancement focus on US universities – although there is a rapidly emerging literature on cognitive enhancement in other countries. Studies of cognitive enhancement in local contexts are enormously important, given that there is so much variation across settings around relevant concerns; e.g. drug regulation; public attitudes to drugs; ideas about human nature and perfection. Future studies on smart drug prevalence should attempt context-inflected analyses, rather than simply providing the results of another survey of cognitive enhancement.

Articles like the one we mentioned at the start of this article are not proof of the high prevalence of smart drug use, but they do show that there is public interest in the phenomenon. Prevalence studies are important of course, but they are not the best means of investigating the interesting and complex dynamics underlying public curiosity about smart drugs in particular contexts, or to anticipate the movements of smart drugs among different public sectors.

Bibliography

Farah, M. J., Illes, J., Cook-Deegan, R., Gardner, H., Kandel, E., King, P., et al. (2004). Neurocognitive enhancement: what can we do and what should we do? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5 (5), 421-425.

Lucke, J. C., Bell, S. K., Partridge, B. J., & Hall, W. D. (2011). Academic doping or Viagra for the brain? EMBO reports, 12 (3), 197-201.

Partridge, B. J., Bell, S. K., Lucke, J. C., Yeates, S., & Hall, W. D. (2011). Smart Drugs ‘‘As Common As Coffee’’: Media Hype about Neuroenchancement. PLoS ONE, 6 (11), e28416.

Ragan, C.I., Bard, I. & Singh, I. (2012). What should we do about student use of cognitive enhancers?: An analysis of current evidence. Neuropharmacology,(64),  588-595.

Sahakian, B. J., & Morein-Zamir, S. (2011). Neuroethical issues in cognitive enhancement. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 25 (2), 197–204.