Everyone knows of the “exam fear” which closes in during the examination period, and calls for all-nighters and serious levels of stress, as students desperately try to cram in a year’s worth of notes into their heads the morning of the exam.
However, some students are unleashing a new tactic to combat high stress levels and lack of concentration: special “smart drugs”.
The drugs in question are Ritalin and its sister medication Modafinil, both usually taken by those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. These are prescribed treatments which boost acetylcholine in the brain, improving alertness and attention. Students who have taken them speak of excellent results and much improved ability to concentrate and absorb information.
A graduate student who did not wished to be named said: “It’s a stimulant, similar to caffeine or Red Bull although I didn’t get distracted and feel jumpy like you sometimes do on caffeine. You don’t feel wired. It’s easy to buy and very cheap.” The Manchester graduate said that they were easily available, especially online, where she bought hers for 40p per tablet.
The use of drugs to improve performance is certainly not a new idea, with athletes and steroids becoming increasing entwined in the minds of most people. However, the use of pills to increase academic power has provoked widespread controversy, with some seeing the issue as a natural stage in social evolution, and others stressing their concerns over the drug becoming essentially legal for everyone to use to pass exams.
Barbara Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge University, said:
“Some students say they feel it is cheating, and it puts pressure on them to feel they have to use these drugs when they don’t really want to.”
Sahakian is equally concerned with the ethical issues the use of “smart drugs” will raise, pointing out that their use may enter into all stages of everyday life and greatly change our behaviour.
“I would say use of Ritalin is as widespread as caffeine tablets. A lot of my friends take it the night before an exam. They take one or two tablets and work until 5am on the morning before the exam.”StudentSt. Andrews University
Speaking at a Conference in London last year, she spoke of forcing universities to do random drug tests on students to deter them from taking the drugs, as she claims it means they gain an unfair advantage.
Concerns have also been raised over the long-term effects the drugs may have on the health of those taking them. Although there are currently no studies on the lasting effects of taking the pills, many experts believe that they could be detrimental, as users can become dependent on them.
More seriously, causes of children suffering cardiac arrest has been linked to their use of Ritalin as a prescribed medication, with fears that the use of the drugs can lead to psychotic symptoms, such as schizophrenia, self-harm, anxiety, increased aggression, delusions and confusion. Although currently an increasingly prevalent concern, the level to which these effects is seen is still being researched.
However, other experts, such as John Harris, have argued that preventing people from taking the drugs would be unethical, as it would prevent the natural development of people enhancing themselves. Harris, a Lord Alliance Professor of Bioethics, argues that:
“It is not rational to be against human enhancement; humans are creatures that result from an enhancement process called evolution (mixed as its benefits are) and moreover are inveterate self-improvers in every conceivable way.”
Whether you agree with the ethics of taking “smart drugs” or not, many students are currently using them to enhance their studies and focus their brain power. A study in America has shown that 16% of university students take them, roughly one in six.
Although there are currently no figures for the number of UK students, it has been estimated as only slightly lower than this amount, and may rise with the increase of tuition fees forcing students to desire a better degree for their money.