Future pupils may use 'brain Botox'

19th September 2008 at 01:00
Researchers have predicted that the next generation could have a right to `smart drugs' to boost their cognitive abilities, reports Jonathan Milne

Within a generation children could be demanding the right to "smart drugs" to help them to learn, a government-funded report says.

It warns teachers that they could soon be guilty of discriminating against poorer children if they do not ensure all pupils get the same "cognition enhancers".

The message comes in research led by Bristol University, commissioned by Futurelab, an educational think tank and charity contracted to help the Government to shape the future of education.

"There are ethical issues about haves and have-nots," it says. "If cogs (cognition enhancers) are only available to those who can afford to pay for them, what does this mean for equality in education?"

About 40 such drugs are known to be in development by pharmaceutical firms and military chemists. They are expected to be common in schools within 20 years.

Procedures such as deep-brain stimulation and transcranial magnet stimulation - dubbed "brain Botox" - are already being used to treat degenerative diseases, but they are also being developed as learning- enhancement tools.

Prescription medicines such as Ritalin (for attention deficit disorder) and Modafinil (for sleep disorders) have been found under laboratory conditions to improve the thinking skills of healthy individuals.

Chemists are working to allay concerns about side-effects, but even if the pills can be proved entirely safe, ethical questions will remain about giving them to children to help them pass tests.

The Academy of Medical Sciences advised ministers this year that cognition enhancers would need to be regulated. Sir Gabriel Horn, who chaired the government-commissioned review on smart drugs, said: "We see similarities in the future use of cognition enhancers with the current use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport."

But the report to Futurelab turns the ethical concerns on their head. "In the future it may be unethical to deny the chance for pupils to take advantage of such enhancements," the researchers say.

Futurelab has brought together educationists, computer scientists, psychologists and demographers to draw up a plan for a brave new world. It is a blueprint that is sometimes exciting, often unnerving.

Brain scanners may soon give teachers real-time read-outs of pupils' thinking, allowing for more personalised learning.

Children could have digital data such as their DNA profiles, schoolwork and assessments, lifestyle choices and shopping habits - all stored on memory sticks.

The research is part of Beyond Current Horizons, a Pounds 1.5 million project in which the Department for Children, Schools and Families tries to map the future of schooling.

Futurelab said it was now moving away from academia to ask teachers, pupils, parents and the wider community what they want out of schools in 2025.

The charity has launched www.millionfutures.org.uk, a website which asks what education should be like for future generations.

One common response is about the importance of real-life skills, taught by people with real-life experience. Others say education should be round- the-clock, with pupils learning from experts worldwide.

But others believe they will need to be prepared for a post-apocalyptic world in which children need to learn traditional "survival" skills such as finding and growing food.

According to the researchers and respondents, it is quickly becoming clear that the traditional subject teacher will vanish. Instead, teachers will specialise in pedagogy and share the classroom with subject specialists from industry.

Dan Sutch, a Futurelab researcher, said our ageing population means that tomorrow's children might work beyond their seventies. With scientific and technological change accelerating, most of what they learned at school would be out of date within a few years. That is why the most important skills they could acquire at school would be about how to communicate, interact and keep on learning.

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