So you’ve got an essay due tomorrow that you haven’t started yet? What do you reach for? A coffee? Maybe a Redbull or the Lidl equivalent? But what’s stopping you from taking a dose of methylphenidate or modafinil to boost your performance?
What are ‘study drugs’?
If you haven’t heard of ‘study drugs’ or ‘smart drugs’ before, Modafinil is one of a number of drugs used by students wanting to raise their grades. It was originally developed to treat narcolepsy, a rare sleeping disorder. However, you may be tempted to try this drug to boost your academic performance. What about a dose of methylphenidate? You may know it by the trade name: Ritalin; a drug intended for sufferers of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Both modafinil and methylphenidate increase alertness, combat fatigue and improve your attention span. Sounds like the perfect antidote to a late night partying, right?
What are the effects?
Studies report healthy individuals show cognitive benefits from ‘study drugs’, for example, short-term memory may be improved by around 10%. That doesn’t sound like much, but judging by anecdotal evidence it seems to make a difference: “It’s amazing,” my friend told me. “If I take just one of these tablets I can study all day. Everyone who used them last year got a First!” And these ‘study drugs’ are not just for students! Senior academics and working professionals also give ‘study drugs’ positive reviews!
However, if these drugs really offer benefits, shouldn’t everyone have access?
Well firstly the associated risks need to be considered…
You encounter some minor side effects following your Monday morning caffeine hit but ‘study drugs’ such as Ritalin have far more serious side effects: severe weight loss, liver damage and stunted growth. Psychological side effects are even more worrying. In 2009, for example, the European Medicines Agency stated that all patients on Ritalin-type drugs should be monitored for psychiatric symptoms. To take ‘study drugs’ safely, medical supervision seems essential.
But it is not just the health risks at an individual level, the cost to society as a whole must also be considered.
Many news stories featuring ‘study drugs’ suggest that demand is limited to higher educational institutions and some high-pressure workplaces. However, there is no evidence to support this. Most evidence is purely anecdotal and as a result the current demographics of ‘study drug’ use is unknown.
It is difficult to predict the impact on society should ‘study drug’ access be widened. What’s to stop it becoming the norm to take drugs schools? What if parents demand access to these drugs to boost their child’s academic performance? If ‘study drugs’ are seen as the solution to stress and fatigue then it is possible that other coping mechanisms such as counselling, alongside other healthy habits, such as regular exercise, may be ignored.
The social and economic impact from the widespread use of study drugs is unknown. However, if such drug use becomes acceptable, ensuring equal access and affordability will be challenging.
Yeah, about fairness…
The use of performance enhancing drugs in competitive sport is considered cheating since they offer an unfair advantage to those who take them. Surely the same issues apply to ‘study drugs’? Take a university, for example, an environment where academic performance is continually tested. ’Study drugs’ could improve some students’ performances but if you choose not to take the drugs will you feel disadvantaged?
‘Study drugs’ could also amplify the problem of inequality in education if only certain groups in society could afford them. It is doubtful, for example, that the cash-strapped NHS could afford to supply and oversee such drug use. Would the responsibility pass to private businesses?
Who has a right to these drugs?
In theory, ‘study drugs’ are only available on prescription. For example, Ritalin is only available to ADHD patients, who are considered to have abnormal cognitive functioning. But defining normality within a population raises issues and leads into discussions about human enhancement –improving the ability of a person beyond what is considered ‘normal’, using medicine or technology.
Certain groups of people have already been considered ‘worthy’, or in need, of such cognitive enhancement. In 2004, significant quantities of modafinil were purchased by the Ministry of Defence to sustain allied forces entering Afghanistan.
More recently, in 2012, Imperial College, London published a study concluding that fatigued doctors might benefit from modafinil. So do those who work in jobs that protect human life have the right to access such drugs? Or do they have a moral obligation to take these drugs? What about those who work long hours? Unless there is equal access for all, drawing a line between who deserves to use ‘study drugs’ and who does not could create tension.
How should we regulate ‘study drugs’?
As a student about to embark on final year exams, I looked for my university’s ‘study drug’ policy. As there was none available, I emailed the Student Support and Wellbeing Team, and was advised that just this week advice has been updated, with an informative blog post to come shortly.
Whilst UCL now provides two short paragraphs warning about side effects and the possession of controlled drugs, there is still no university specific regulation. I mean, how would you regulate use?
Compulsory urine samples could be taken before exams, but then samples would also need to be taken throughout the year to capture the revision period. Think of the funding and resources required for such university wide regulation!
And what if a student tested positive? Throwing them out of university seems extreme; deducting marks might be more reasonable. Deciding on a fair amount of marks would require research and be fraught with complexities. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect universities to regulate the use of these drugs when they only bring minor cognitive benefits.
But if academic institutions do not regulate the use of these drugs, who does?
The Psychoactive Substances Act, passed in May 2016, covers the use of ‘study drugs’ and prohibits their production, supply, import, export and in some cases possession. Yet no one seems to know how to enforce this legislation.
In an online survey with 1000 participants, Varsity found 10% students at Cambridge have used ‘study drugs’. And from discussions with friends and lecturers, some of them think this is an underestimation of the prevalence of the use of ‘study drugs’ (at least at UCL).
So what can be done?
Current policy limits ‘study drug’ access to certain groups of people, but has no real influence for those who choose to use them. This is the worst of both worlds. Either regulation should be relaxed to enable access for all, or we must crackdown on the few that do have access.
This currently tacit acceptance of ‘study drugs’ will set the tone for future developments and could be far more problematic if, or more likely, when, a more effective cognitive enhancing drug is developed.
At the very least, there needs to be a move towards educating the public about the risks and benefits of ‘study drugs’. We need to grasp this window of opportunity to shape how we use ‘study drugs’ and cognitive enhancement before its too late.