Spectre of exam drug tests looms

18th February 2000 at 00:00
Scientists warn that new mind-boosting substances may soon hit the classroom. Chris Bunting reports

CHILDREN sitting their GCSEs or key stage tests may face urine or blood tests if a new breed of brain-boosting drugs becomes available.

Recent developments in "smart drugs" designed to improve intelligence and memory raise the prospect of drug-testing regimes similar to those now imposed on

athletes, according to Dr Iain Chalmers, of University College London's school of public policy.

"The sort of drugs that may be in the pipeline will be used to enhance the capability not just of people with dementia but younger people as well," said Dr Chalmers, who runs the UK Cochrane Centre, which reviews health-care practices.

"Someone is going to have to give some thought, sooner rather than later, as to how these drugs are going to be regarded. Are they, as in sport, going to be outlawed or will it become a normal thing to turn to these drugs?"

Although many scientists are cautious about significantly boosting brain power in healthy

individuals, "smart" drug technology has developed rapidly.

Last September, an American research team revealed that they had developed a breed of "smart mice" by boosting a brain protein that acts as a receptor for a vital neurotransmitter, both of which are present in humans. The mice performed significntly better than untreated rodents in tests such as learning how to escape from a maze.

Pfizer, the drug company responsible for the impotence drug Viagra, has been testing NGD97-1, a drug designed to improve the memories of people suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Project director, Dr Nicholas Saccomano, has said the company is "starting to look at the scientific, clinical, ethical and commercial aspects of cognitive improvement from the use of such drugs in normal people".

That could have consequences for traditional methods of testing pupil achievement, Dr Chalmers says. He fears the prospect of teenagers taking drugs with serious side-effects in a bid to raise their grades. "We need to start asking: What effects these drugs will have on children and will they be using them prior to exams? What does the education system intend to do to prepare itself for this possibility, if not probability?"

Professor Jim Edwardson, director of the institute for the health of the elderly at Newcastle University, is more sceptical about the application of "smart" drugs.

"The more immediate issue is likely to be the abuse of substances designed for use with patients, which are wrongly perceived to have benefits for normal people," he said.

A thriving American and Internet market for "intelligence" drugs already exists.

Leader, 16

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