There are countless illicit drugs used by sports people to boost muscle growth, improve stamina and enhance their performance. The analytical laboratories used by the sports authorities expend vast amounts of energy playing cat and mouse with unscrupulous athletes, their trainers, and the chemists who supply them with novel enhancers that can evade current detection techniques.

Of course, the discovery of nootropic drugs that can give the brain a boost raises important questions for society too, particularly in  education. How much is that science degree worth if it was acquired under the artificial stimulation of modafinil, for instance? Is that first-class honors with distinction earned when a chemical was used to help with the requisite firing of neurons during the learning and revision period and even in the final examination itself as good as the one achieved without chemical enhancement?

Earning a degree the old-fashioned way is a struggle, for all but the upper intellectual echelons who in that rarefied atmosphere at the top of their personal ivory tower seem to sail through with little obvious revision and still manage to enjoy an ebullient social life throughout the course. The rest of us sweat buckets, cramming, and cribbing and hoping we did enough to scrape through. One's finals can make or break a person academically and in terms of future career opportunities, just as winning "that" race can in sport. It is perhaps no surprise that when brain-boosting drugs emerged there were students the world over who caught on to the idea of a little artificial stimulus for their intellect.

Of course, the higher the degree the more chance of that plumb job. Employers pay a premium for the first class, not surprisingly in everything from finance and law to the chemical industry. The latter arena is often open only to candidates with a top-notch degree and a postgraduate diploma, which is usually accessible only to those with the higher degrees in the first place. The relative merits of the university degree and the boundaries within its honors system has remained a good measure of a candidate. But this is where modafinil makes its entrance.

Modafinil was discovered in the late 1970s by neurophysiologist Michel Jouvet of Lafon Laboratories, France, It is similar in several ways to an amphetamine, but it can prolong one's ability to concentrate without the distracting effects of stimulants. This means that the modafinil user can revise for longer and be more productive, retaining acquired information long after the effects of the drug have worn off. Modafinil is now familiar on most university campuses. As long ago as 2008, the journal Nature reported that 44% of respondents polled confessed to having taken modafinil. 66% had taken its chemical cousin, methylphenidate (aka Ritalin the hyperactivity drug).

If we accept that students have access to these compounds, in brown-paper bags under-the-counter, so to speak, can our universities survive in their current form if they tolerate such drugs? Should there be a weighting applied to students who test positive or negative in random spot checks throughout the academic year, with the enhancers penalized and the drug-free promoted in terms of their grade?

The relative advantage gained through taking such drugs is unclear. One should also perhaps mention the other drugs commonly used by students: caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, cannabis etc. Should academia test for all drugs and re-grade one's degree accordingly? The greatest negative weighting being applied to those who use nootropic agents, such as modafinil, rather than penalizing those who have a couple of pints of beer in the student union on  a Friday night? Or, should the universities simply ban those drugs so that students compete intellectually based on personal abilities, rather than an artificially enhanced set of skills.

It is a decision that academia is yet to make and students are graduating now, in enhanced and unenhanced forms and applying for jobs and postgraduate positions. Testing for modafinil should be easy analytically speaking, but as with athletic enhancers, there will emerge drugs that can evade detection and it is inevitable that university bursars will become embroiled in a cat-and-mouse chase just as are those hoping to chase after doped up athletes. At this point, my comment peters out, if only I had a way to concentrate for just a little longer…

David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the bestselling science book "Deceived Wisdom".