The Government and the medical profession should "seriously consider" making cognition-enhancing drugs available to students without prescription, or allowing them to be prescribed for non-therapeutic purposes.
This is the view of John Harris, professor of bioethics and director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester. He said that there is now a sizeable body of evidence to show that stimulants such as Ritalin, Provigil and Adderall significantly improve concentration and performance and that their side-effects are proportional to their benefits.
Currently these drugs are available only on prescription. Use without a prescription is a criminal offence.
"There are many drugs already prescribed for non-therapeutic reasons," Professor Harris said, citing the contraceptive pill as an example.
"Viagra has a medical use, but it is well known that the sales figures are far in excess of the level of dysfunction in society."
The professor said he had been prescribed sleeping pills for use on long flights - not because he was medically unable to sleep, but because he had to deliver a lecture on arrival and wanted to be fresh.
"I'm calling for universities and the Government to recognise that there is nothing wrong in principle with trying to improve your cognitive functioning. That's what people might think education was for if they didn't understand much about it."
If the Government did accept this proposal and changed the law accordingly, universities would have to develop policies on use of drugs before exams, Professor Harris said. "The issue would move from legitimacy to one of fairness and cost."
The professor said that he did not take cognition-enhancing drugs. "I don't think they would make a huge difference to the sort of work I do.
"I'm also towards the end of my career and am perhaps less competitive than I used to be."
A recent article published in University of Sussex student newspaper The Badger quoted a recent graduate who said she had used Ritalin to help her study towards the end of her final term. The article reported her as saying: "People who weren't on it drank loads of Red Bull ... what's the difference?"
The Badger article also quoted a current masters student who took his first degree in the US.
He said that his friends had "started taking (Ritalin) in high school and continued through college. They'd take it for any kind of minor assignment; some were on it all the time."
NON-THERAPEUTIC USE COULD BE REGULATORY MINEFIELD
Gary Lynch, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, has spent almost 40 years researching the biochemical mechanisms of memory.
Speaking to Times Higher Education before giving a series of lectures at UK universities in 2008, he said he saw many regulatory problems for so-called smart drugs.
Professor Lynch said that the only human studies had tested relatively mild, first-generation versions of the drugs, with good clinical effects and no side-effects.
However, he doubted whether they would be cleared for use in the near future by students or academics who are not suffering from specific diseases.
He said: "There are major regulatory problems for enhancement compounds.
"For one, conditions (such as the loss of memory capacity and cognition) have not to my knowledge been recognised as legitimate therapeutic targets.
"In the absence of clear guidance on such issues, pharmaceutical houses will be hesitant about making major commitments."