Page last updated at 23:00 GMT, Wednesday, 21 May 2008 00:00 UK

Exam-boosting drug tests 'loom'

Pupil taking exam
Pupils could be tested in the same way as athletes are

Schools and universities may soon need to test students sitting exams for brain improving drugs, experts say.

The Academy of Medical Sciences said drugs for diseases such as Alzheimer's were being used by healthy people to boost alertness and memory.

The experts said if it became more of an issue, urine drug tests might be needed, just as they are for athletes.

But they added brain science technology also held the key to more effective addiction and mental illness drugs.

The academy set up a working group in 2006 led by Cambridge University neuroscience expert Sir Gabriel Horn after being asked by ministers to look at the use of psychoactive drugs - those which impact on the workings of the brain.

Brain enhancers - Drugs for treatments such as Alzheimer's already thought to be used by healthy people to boost alertness and memory function. Regulation may be needed in future to limit unfair advantages in exams
Drug addiction - Costs the UK economy £15bn in social and economic costs. Most treatments focus on replacing substance with one that is less addictive and harmful, but vaccines in pipeline to neutralise addiction
Mental illness - One in 10 estimated to suffer mental illness. Genes have been identified that make brain vulnerable to mental illness by damaging internal wiring. Knowledge could be used for treatment

It said future drugs had huge potential thanks to greater understanding of the workings of the brain.

For example, research has identified that many addictive drugs and some behavioural addictions such as gambling "hijack" neural circuits in a particular region of the brain.

Meanwhile, genes had been identified which make the brain vulnerable to mental illness.

But the experts, who consulted the public via focus groups during their research, said these breakthroughs had, as yet, led to limited progress in drug treatment.

They said most existing medicines for drug addiction focused on replacing the substance with something less addictive and hazardous, such as methadone for heroin, instead of curing the addiction.

The group's report said vaccines could be developed to neutralise addiction, pointing to the work currently being done on a jab for smoking as evidence that is was possible.

However, the experts warned this would only be achieved with more investment and better co-ordination, which could be achieved through more partnership work between industry and government.

The team also turned its attention to drugs which improve brain performance, so-called cognitive enhancers.

The experts pointed out brain enhancers, such as caffeine, had been used for a long time.

But they warned there was anecdotal evidence drugs such as Aricept, a treatment for Alzheimer's, Ritalin, used for attention deficit disorder, and modafinil, which targets daytime sleepiness, were also being used by otherwise health people to boost alertness and memory.

Unfair advantage

The body said in the future, regulation may have to be introduced to stop these treatments and future ones from giving people an unfair advantage in examinations and tests.

Sir Gabriel added: "We see similarities in the future use of cognition enhancers with the current use of performance enhancing drugs in sport."

But a spokesman for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry said the prospect of brain enhancers being used on a large scale was unlikely.

He said: "These drugs are prescription drugs and therefore you need to go to the doctor to get them. I don't think the system is that open to abuse."

On the issue of developing treatments for addiction and mental illness, he said there was much work being done.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "We welcome the report which provides helpful insight into how scientific and technological advancement may impact on our understanding of addiction and drug use over the next 20 years.

"We will consider its recommendations and respond in due course."

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