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How Smart are Smart Drugs?

According to reports released recently, UK universities are likely to see an increase in the use of ‘smart drugs’ by students to increase cognitive function and enhance academic performance. Whilst most of the drug use in the UK is currently anecdotal, 1 in 4 students in America are thought to be using these ‘smart drugs’ in order to boost exam performance, and many academics believe that this will filter through to our Universities.

‘Smart drugs’ are ordinarily used to treat conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). One report has claimed that there are 27 major agents currently available in the UK that can be taken to boost brain power; including 10 dietary supplements. But, it’s drugs such as Ritalin and Modafinil that are apparently the most popular for students trying to improve their academic performance. Modafinil, which is normally used to treat Narcolepsy, is said to have incredibly stimulating effects. In small doses, it can improve your memory and increase your focus; great for those last minute cramming sessions before exams. The drug is also said to prevent you falling asleep. Scientists believe Modafinil could keep its user awake for 48 hours, and amazingly that users won’t even have sleep ‘debt’ so one 8 hour sleep session will suffice for no sleep the previous night.

In a study at Cambridge, researchers found that a single dose of the drug helped male university students remember long chains of digits, complete puzzles and perform in mental planning tests. Modafinil has also been tested by US and British forces to allow soldiers to complete operations throughout the night. Therefore, ‘smart drugs’ clearly offer their users an advantage, and it’s obvious why academics fear that more students will seek the benefit come stressful exam times.

However, it has been stressed that there are some serious side-effects that come with abuse of these kinds of drugs. Insomnia, anxiety, and heart problems, along with psychotic episodes, have all been associated with the intake of these substances. Dr Ken Checinski, a specialist in addictive behaviour at St George’s, University of London, has been confronted with some of the more extreme realities of taking these performance enhancing drugs. He says “[the user] might have a mood disorder not quite as bad as the crash from coming off cocaine but a near crash. They might feel suicidal.” He warns that the drugs are advertised as making people smarter and braver, but the reality is often quite the opposite.
Impact spoke to one student at The University of Nottingham, who had taken these ‘smart drugs’ on a year abroad studying in America. Mike Hunt told Impact, “the ones I took were Adderall; I only took it once and it worked pretty well.” The drug in question, Adderall, is an amphetamine which is usually used to treat Narcolepsy and ADHD. Taken in appropriate doses, the drug is said to increase energy and awareness whilst heightening concentration levels. It is also said to give users a compulsion to complete tasks. On urbandictionary.com, one user has even put ‘Adderall: The only way to finish homework’. Mike explained,“I just felt like I could concentrate a lot and wanted to get stuff done. I ended up doing a 10 page essay, loads of e-mails and then tidied my room.” So, it would seem that reports on these types of drugs are fairly accurate, and with more and more students filtering to and from the US, where these drugs are fairly common, it’s hardly surprising increasing numbers of UK students are starting to discover the benefits. When asked if Joe would use these drugs again he replied, “I would, especially if I could get hold of it in Nottingham.”

These ‘smart drugs’ are currently only legally available in the UK by prescription, and most GPs will not prescribe these drugs to anybody who doesn’t have one of the conditions the pills are designed for. However, with the few clicks of a mouse, you can find a whole host of drugs available for purchase online, which means that every student has easy access to them. It goes without saying though, that you don’t always get what you pay for on the net. With drugs easily available and the potential effects speaking for themselves, some academics worry that these drugs will soon, if they haven’t already, infiltrate the UK University system.

The use of drugs to enhance academic performance has sparked quite the debate. The advantages of taking these ‘smart drugs’ are apparent, and with side effects only showing in extreme cases of overuse, more students will undoubtedly be tempted by these pills to give them an edge over their peers come examination period. But, is the consumption of these drugs classed as cheating? Will it be giving some students an unfair advantage? Experts in the UK are divided on the issue. Some believe that the health and social dangers of these drugs are too great to allow students to take them freely, whilst others feel that, with the right supervision, these drugs are a legitimate way to boost performance.

Amongst those that are in favour of the use of these performance enhancing drugs is John Harris, Professor of Bioethics at Manchester University, who has openly said, “My position on enhancement generally and on ‘smart drugs’ in particular is that enhancement is definitely a good thing. If they do improve function in a way that is safe enough, I think people should make their own choices about whether to access them.” Harris therefore argues that it should be left up to each student as to whether they decide to use the drugs or not, but clearly feels that enhancement is only a good thing.

It would of course, also, be very difficult to stop students using the drugs if they are so easily available. Vince Cakic of Sydney University, whose work has been published in the Journal of Medical Ethics explains that “any attempt to prohibit the use of [smart drugs] will probably be difficult or inordinately expensive to police effectively.” So, one would be forgiven for thinking that some academics have already given up on the idea of trying to patrol the usage of these stimulants.

There are of course some academics that are still concerned with the welfare of students who may be tempted by the quick fix these drugs seem to advertise. Dr Paul Howard Jones, senior lecture at Bristol University says, “These drugs will multiply in number, range and power. I can see there are huge potential benefits but they challenge many of the values we have in education and society.” And that is a crucial area that needs to be discussed by those in charge when it comes to deciding the fate of these ‘smart drugs’, as they do promote an ethic of cheating rather than merely working hard to achieve your goals.

Dr Paul Howard Jones conducted a survey amongst teachers where he found that many thought these drugs would increase the education poverty gap, as those who could afford the drugs would be given an unfair advantage. It was also discovered that most teachers would demand drug testing if they became prevalent, and that they wouldn’t grade students who were taking the drugs as highly as those that were taking the exam sober. Obviously, this is a controversial topic with many social, political and health implications and it is hardly surprising that the teaching profession are worried about the repercussions if ‘smart drugs’ make a nationwide appearance.

No doubt ‘smart drugs’ will be making more of appearance across the country come exam period in May. And with the professionals arguing amongst themselves, it is difficult to predict what the future holds. The monitoring or prevention of the use of these drugs is always going to prove difficult, and short of imposing urine samples before students enter exam rooms, the University can’t do much to prevent the use of these performance enhancing substances.

Sam Owen

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3 Comments on this post.
  • Smart Drugs
    30 April 2010 at 00:12
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    Great article on smart drugs. Cheers.

  • ADHDlady
    3 May 2010 at 12:19
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    I wish you had mentioned how the drugs help students with ADHD and that there are undiagnosed students with ADHD which is why they are probably taking these drugs. Someone taking Adderall to be able to finish their homework not to make it better but to be able to finish it, hmm, I would suspect they have ADHD. I was diagnosed at university which then explained a lot of things.
    This moniker ‘Smart Drugs’ is wrong. They DO NOT make you smarter.
    What it does is help you focus what is already there.
    I have a 39 point difference between my Verbal Scale and working memory which is very significant (on the WAIS scale). So using stimulants helps me make better use of what’s in my brain.
    What might drugs testing for students with ADHD imply?

  • smart drugs
    13 May 2010 at 02:01
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