Brains + drugs = fried eggs, right? Not always. Cognitive enhancers are drugs designed to boost mental powers and stamina without turning your brain into runny, white edibles. These enhancers affect the brain’s neural processes that trigger memory, attention, learning, and decision making by altering the balance of chemical neurotransmitters. While America’s favorite cognitive enhancer is caffeine, other study drugs are the “higher- tech equivalents of NoDoz” or the two pots of coffee that students and professionals otherwise consume to pull all-nighters for presentations, term papers, or final exams. Such modern caffeine substitutes range from stimulants to narcolepsy pills and are enticingly attractive for an overworked twenty-four-seven society.
In 2008, as cognitive enhancement increasingly became a household name among scientists and academics, Henry Greely, Barbara Sahakian, and several of their colleagues aroused mainstream media attention when they published a commentary in a prominent science journal that supported the use of cognitive-enhancing medications as a way for healthy adults to boost their mental capabilities. While they lobbied for general consumption by society, they warned that certain settings warranted closer ethical scrutiny. Specifically, the authors mentioned the two most traditionally worrisome categories for medicinal brain boosting—military personnel and school children. Another area of concern, but one far less scrutinized, is the higher-education setting of medical and law schools, where graduate students intensely compete for grades in an environment designed to prepare them for their professional responsibilities.