Cosmetic Neurology: Lawful Latte or Study Stimulant?

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Any student will have recoiled in fear at the mere suggestion in the title that their sacred caffeine-laced elixir should be anything but free of judgement. After all, how else are we supposed to function at university, work or in any social situation at all? As summer exams approach, the pressure is building; does the way we cope with this tension matter?

Lots of questions, undoubtedly owing to the ambiguity of the issue at hand. A good majority of us will admit to having a preference for starting the day with a caffeine boost; whether this is with a milky tea or the blackest of coffees, there appears to be no better way of clarifying our heads to be able to tackle the demands of the day. If, on the morning before an exam, I decided to declare that I had a pre-examination Earl Grey, I don’t suppose anyone would blame me. But could we be using stimulants as a way of consciously enhancing neural function?

Enter Ritalin, Modafinil, and Adderall. Most commonly known as ADHD/ADD and narcolepsy medications, over the last decade, developed countries are seeing a quiet rise in the use of such drugs for unintended purposes. Understandably, as pressure on students increases, their coping methods must also follow suit. Pupils around the world today are aware of the cut-throat economy and unapologetic job market and consequently need to do a lot more to be able to compete with their peers.

I spoke to several students who swore by using medications such as Ritalin both for revision, as well as before exams. Most users report an alleviated sense of focus, and decidedly shallow discipline on one topic of choice. Arguably, with the development of smart phones and digitised media the modern student is inundated with sources of distraction that no doubt deter from productivity; couple this with the aforementioned increased demand on students, you can almost sympathise with those who do what they can to achieve those life-determining grades.

One student to whom I spoke, is diagnosed with ADHD. During exam season, she sold her prescription medication to friends, one of whom boasts a 100% score on an A-Level Geography exam, owing to the use of Ritalin beforehand.

But where do we draw the line between an innocently caffeinated pick-me-up and an unfair advantage? Many students will attest to their laboured efforts; nights of slaving away in front of textbooks and lecture slides in order to maximise their successes. Is it cheating when the same student’s efforts are diluted by other individuals who choose to use an artificial motivator to get the same grades? It is important then also, to look not just at the extremes of students who can work without stimulants at all, to those who rely on study drugs, but those who cannot get by without stimulation in the form of caffeine. Going back to my original point, is it true that caffeine offers a clarity that gives students an advantage over those who do not reap the same benefits?

In terms of academic regulation, one problem is that it is highly cumbersome, thereby impossible, to monitor any level of stimulant intake before exams, not to mention definitely impossible, in a student’s free time. Also, not enough research has been conducted to confirm that stimulants confer any sort of advantage during examinations, nor could we ever accurately collect such data, as students will almost certainly be unwilling to provide data on their habits with the credibility of their work at stake.

Students of today are more conscientious, well-informed and aware of the competition they face. They are highly individualistic and most would do what they can to get ahead. Use of stimulants is more documented in Russell-group institutions with outputs of highly intelligent young adults who need to defy the odds to get an inch ahead of everyone else in the same boat. Does that make cosmetic neurology an acceptable 21st century practice?

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Travel, Features and Sport sub-editor 2016/17. Second year Biology with Linguistics student. Interested particularly in molecular biology, genetics and brain disease and disorders. Very disposed towards writing about things that haven't quite been explained yet.

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