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Study drugs: students’ little helpers?

ByMagdalena Liedl

Nov 4, 2014

Reading a page and easily memorising every single word; staying focussed on a single task for hours; studying without ever getting distracted or tired. With essay deadlines and exam dates coming up, we all wish we were capable of such things. Instead, we stare out of the library window, check Facebook for the tenth time and finally click on that funny cat video sent to us by a friend.

However, there are now little pills that promise to help us get to rid of our bad habits and make us study more efficiently than ever. They are called cognitive enhancers, and include the likes of Ritalin, Modafinil and Adderall. They are said to improve short-term memory, increase speed of thought and boost concentration.

Originally, they were developed to treat neurological illnesses, dementia and brain disorders. Ritalin helps ADHD patients to stay focused, whilst Modafinil was designed for people suffering from narcolepsy (a rare brain disorder that makes patients suddenly fall asleep at any time during the day) to regulate their sleeping rhythm.

However, recent surveys have found that more and more healthy students take such medication and rely on these little pills to help them through their exams and essays. Some studies suggest that up to one in five students have tried drugs to improve their grades.

Technically, patients would need a prescription to purchase these drugs, but online pharmacies make it increasingly easy for students to get hold of them from overseas without a doctor’s approval.

It has become increasingly common for students from the highly competitive Oxbridge or Ivy League universities in particular to take study drugs during exam periods. In a recent survey at the University of Cambridge, 17 per cent of interviewed students admitted to having taken cognitive enhancers. At such universities, there is often a great deal of pressure to excel. For those who want to have a social life besides academic success, it can be extremely tempting to seek the help of medications to remain highly concentrated through endless study hours during the day, and continue partying during the night.

Not many students would freely admit to using ADHD medication to help their brain concentrate, but on internet blogs and in forums users write about their experiences, and exchange tips on where to get hold of study drugs and what the cheapest online retailers are.

“With Adderall I was able to study for three days straight, ten hours a day, only with a few five minute breaks to eat. After three days, I knew 1000 pages by heart.” a student, who wants to remain anonymous, says. “I set an alarm clock to remind me to eat, because the amphetamines suppress hunger.”

“I was tired from studying, but after I took Modafinil at around 11am I couldn’t close my eyes until 4am” adds another student. Staying awake before exam dates and cramming 1000 pages in just three days sounds great. However, the drug users also noticed the downsides: “Being on Modafinil, I had problems having normal conversations with people. I had to concentrate to say sentences that made sense,” a student says.

However, becoming a bit anti-social is the least of the problems ADHD and narcolepsy medication poses for healthy users, experts say. As these study drugs are only available over the internet, it is not only hard to find out who is using them in non-medical contexts, but also what effects they have on healthy users.

Modafinil, for instance, does not seem to cause the same withdrawal symptoms as amphetamines – although it works in a similar way. Still, the drug expertise and research centre DrugScope warns that it might be addictive if taken regularly over a longer period.

Moreover, according to the Academy of Medical Sciences (Acmedsci) there is little research on how study drugs actually work in the first place. We do not actually know how and why they make users stay focused, work more efficiently and think faster. “The relationship between the performance of synapses, the use of drugs to boost their activity, and any resulting cognitive benefit remains uncertain,” Acmedsci warns.

Again, Modafinil poses a problem for doctors. According to DrugScope, “doctors are not sure as to how the drug actually works, though it is thought to act on dopamine, a neurotransmitter that affects mood and thought and keeps the person awake.”

One thing is for certain: study drugs cannot make us smarter. They do seem to make us more efficient; keeping us awake, changing the way we work and process information. However, even those effects are not guaranteed. The wrong dose of a certain drug could even reduce our cognitive performance, a report by Acmedsci says. “There may be different optimum doses for different functions; it may not be possible to maximise performance in all types of brain function at the same time.” And with drugs purchased online without a doctor’s recommendation, it is not hard to take the wrong dose.

In addition, Modafinil can keep users awake for up to forty hours – not exactly a healthy state for the body. As with all drugs that prevent sleep, cognitive enhancers might cause physical and psychological problems. As with physical doping in the sports world, academic doping comes with ethical problems: is an exam fair if half the students are on Ritalin? Some argue that cognitive enhancers could help students from disadvantaged backgrounds make it into top level universities. This is because they do not actually make users smarter, they simply serve to make them realise their full potential, supporters argue.

Others point out the many side-effects and uncertainties of the drugs. They call for a re-evaluation of the pressure put on students that makes them seek the help of pills in the first place, instead of thinking of alternative ways to cope with increased stress.


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