Smart drugs for cognitive enhancement: ethical and pragmatic considerations in the era of cosmetic neurology

J Med Ethics. 2009 Oct;35(10):611-5. doi: 10.1136/jme.2009.030882.


Reports in the popular press suggest that smart drugs or "nootropics" such as methylphenidate, modafinil and piracetam are increasingly being used by the healthy to augment cognitive ability. Although current nootropics offer only modest improvements in cognitive performance, it appears likely that more effective compounds will be developed in the future and that their off-label use will increase. One sphere in which the use of these drugs may be commonplace is by healthy students within academia. This article reviews the ethical and pragmatic implications of nootropic use in academia by drawing parallels with issues relevant to the drugs in sport debate. It is often argued that performance-enhancing drugs should be prohibited because they create an uneven playing field. However, this appears dubious given that "unfair" advantages are already ubiquitous and generally tolerated by society. There are concerns that widespread use will indirectly coerce non-users also to employ nootropics in order to remain competitive. However, to restrict the autonomy of all people for fear that it may influence the actions of some is untenable. The use of potentially harmful drugs for the purposes of enhancement rather than treatment is often seen as unjustified, and libertarian approaches generally champion the rights of the individual in deciding if these risks are acceptable. Finally, whether the prohibition of nootropics can be effectively enforced is doubtful. As nootropics use becomes widespread among students in the future, discussion of this issue will become more pressing in the years to come.

MeSH terms

  • Athletes / psychology
  • Cognition / drug effects
  • Cognition / ethics*
  • Doping in Sports / ethics*
  • Ethics, Medical
  • Human Rights
  • Humans
  • Mental Processes / drug effects
  • Mental Processes / ethics
  • Nootropic Agents / administration & dosage*
  • Off-Label Use / ethics


  • Nootropic Agents