Smart Pills

There is a long history, extending back over thousands of years, of people taking drugs to enhance their cognitive performance. Two well-

known examples of cognitive enhancers with long histories are ginkgo biloba and caffeine. Caffeine in one form or another is ingested daily by approximately 90% of the North American population and ginkgo biloba is widely available as a commercial supplement to enhance cognition. In the last decade college students and white-collar workers have taken to using other powerful drugs such as the stimulant methylphenidate or the wakefulness agent modafinil to enhance their classroom and exam performance or their workplace performance. Methylphenidate is used to treat the attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and modafinil is used to treat narcolepsy, but in the last decade they have become popular drugs for cognitive enhancement. There are reports that 15-25% of college students have used a cognitive enhancing drug. While we will not consider the dangers associated with these powerful drugs, we will look at a well-designed study (European Neuropsychopharmacology, vol 27, 248-260, 2017) that examines the use of these drugs as cognitive enhancers for chess players.

Thirty-nine male chess players were matched on tournament performance for play against a computer chess program (Fritz 12). Participants were administered a set of neuropsychological tests that included the psycho-motor-vigilance-test, trail-making-test, Stroop test, Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, Balloon Analogue Risk Task, Tower of Hanoi puzzle, and a set of self-rating trait scales. A randomization treatment sequence for clinical drug trials was established to assign participants to one of the four treatment groups to receive either placebo, modafinil, caffeine, or methylphenidate on chess playing trail days. When all games were examined the three psychoactive drugs did not significantly enhance performance. However, when games where time limits were exceeded were removed from analysis, both modafinil and methylphenidate significantly improved chess players scores. The three psychoactive drugs also resulted in greater reflective time for making moves and is posited to have resulted in the improved performance via modification of move decision making. There are details and limitations that cannot be covered in a short blog and for those with an interest we recommend reading the article. The major point is that these psychoactive compounds enhance cognitive performance on a highly demanding and complex skill task. Thus, leading to the question, what are the ethical concerns of using drugs to enhance cognitive performance in a variety of settings where high level cognitive skills are rewarded (e.g., with money and prestige) and who gets access to such drugs.

By Hasker Davis

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