University of Otago PhD researcher Hazem Zohny has warned about myths and "hype" involving so-called "smart" drugs, and says there is little evidence they improve the academic performance of university students.

Mr Zohny, 30, an Egyptian-born former journalist, began PhD studies at Otago University last year.

His research paper "The Myth of Cognitive Enhancement Drugs", based on his Otago studies, has just been published in a leading academic journal, Neuroethics.

The views expressed in this paper have also been shared with a much wider audience through an interview with Mr Zohny recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a leading US tertiary education publication, with a circulation of about 300,000 and many more readers online.


In the journal paper, Mr Zohny noted there had been a "prodigious" debate on biomedical cognitive enhancement, with 820,000 references to "cognitive enhancement" on Google Scholar.

But a series of key "presumptions" or myths was driving "this flurry of debate".

One was the claim in the "enhancement literature" that drugs to enhance cognition existed and were effective "among the cognitively normal".

But there was no "consistent evidence" that the cognitive enhancers usually discussed enhanced cognitive capacities "among the healthy and non-sleep-deprived".

Such drugs, including Adderall, Ritalin and modafinil -- normally prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) -- have been used by some US university students in a bid to improve study performance.

Mr Zohny also took issue with the claim "pharmacological cognitive enhancement" was widespread and growing among tertiary students, including in the United States. Such claims lacked evidence and were based on "scant and unreliable data".

Mr Zohny said in an interview one of the biggest potential problems with the "hype" and myths involved in part of the bioethical discussion was the potential for a form of "coercion" among university students.

Some could mistakenly believe the use of such drugs by fellow students was high and feel they needed to take "smart" drugs to keep up.

Prof John McMillan, director of the Otago Bioethics Centre and one of Mr Zohny's supervisors, said publication of his research paper was a significant achievement.

Taking ADHD drugs without prescription was illegal in New Zealand, which was a further reason to avoid taking such drugs in an "off-label" attempt to improve academic performance, Prof McMillan said.