Study drugs: the inducer of delusion or deftness?


Credit: Stephen Mccarthy

Roisin McCarthy & Michaila Byrne

The presence of Nootropics in UK universities is on the rise. “Smart drugs” that students are turning to for aid in their studies include Ritalin, Modafinil, Adderall, Dexedrine and in rarer cases, cocaine and LSD. Students report improved concentration, memory, and alertness, claiming they can work for much longer periods of time and in the cases of the more psychedelic drugs, report improved creativity. Modafinil is perhaps the most popular of all.

So why are today’s students turning to drug use? Is this something to be concerned about?

Many students claim that the competitiveness of today’s world is unlike it has been for generations and we are more career-conscious than ever before. Graduate unemployment and unpaid internships are not a far-off reality for many and, when combined with student debt, students can feel like they are starting on the back foot. The idea of a drug that will enhance productivity and keep you sat in the library for longer hours can be very tempting and is something that many students do resort to without major short-term health consequences, but not for all.

When discussing the fairness of some students taking smart drugs and others not, one pointed out that external assistance can come in various forms; from drinking coffee to paying for extra tuition. These could be considered unfair but are already tolerated within society. They also suggested that without a central planner to compensate every child from birth up to the resource provision accessible to the richest and most educated parents, educational opportunities can never be “equal” in any true, meaningful sense. Common side effects reported are stomach pain, skin reactions, anxiety, and in the more severe cases long-term mental and physical health problems. Brain chemistry is not something that can be predicted and the effects of taking a drug when you have no control over or knowledge of where it came from can be devastating, particularly when the long-term side effects are largely unknown. And yet, despite the risks, recent statistics drawn from a nation-wide survey of 2000 people show that one in five students have used study drugs across UK universities. Perhaps it is not so much a question of equality among students, but a question of re-evaluating the student experience whereby study drugs have become an integral part of university life. If this is the case then the real issue could lie in regulation rather than prohibition. Last year, Dr Sahakian, a Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at Cambridge University was reported in The Independent as an advocate for the licensing of drugs such as Modafinil, having suggested that we should be more aware of the dangers of buying drugs from unknown sellers online. Over a million results pop up after searching “Where to buy Modafinil UK” with numerous sellers offering “bulk deals”, “next day delivery” and ‘‘flash sales’’. None of these sales are regulated under UK law, which has approved Modafinil as a non-controlled prescription drug. The ease at which one may access the drug is somewhat unnerving. By definition, people who buy Modafinil online do so without medical supervision; they consequently run the risk of taking a drug that might trigger an adverse reaction due to an underlying medical condition.

The Glasgow Guardian spoke to five students who have taken Modafinil at some point over their studies; none of them were prescribed it by a doctor and all had purchased it off the Internet. When asked about the effects of the drug, their experiences appear to have been extremely varied. One student noted on finding himself “with sporadic numbness in the face […] this later developed into a shoulder tic, which after two years continues to have a significantly detrimental effect to the quality of my life.” Peculiar side effects such as this are not uncommon with online forums filled with concerned messages from Modafinil users who have suffered from full body spasms to feet turning blue. Physical reactions to the drug often appear in tandem with psychiatric reactions, as another student details, “I often experienced mood swings and a general feeling of negativity after taking it.” It would seem that users of Modafinil are often reliant on the drug during exam time or when a particularly heavy load of essays are due. As one student discloses, “I was taking significantly higher doses than were recommended within a 24 hour period […] this consequently kept me awake for four days straight’. Traditionally prescribed for narcolepsy, Modafinil’s use as a study enhancer principally enables the user to concentrate for longer periods of time and without tiring. Those who use it find themselves engrossed in their studies, as another interviewee puts it, “I feel like I can just sit in the same spot and not have to move for anything.” The benefits of avoiding that all too familiar procrastination-rabbit-hole seem to be easily swallowed, but aside from wiring you up and honing your concentration, do drugs like Modafinil actually improve the standard of your work? The answer remains uncertain; recent studies have outlined the deteriorative effects Modafinil has on creativity while a report published by the University of Oxford in 2015 defined it as a “cognition enhancing drug”. For the students interviewed by the Glasgow Guardian, it would seem that all agreed the effects were largely attention based with none reporting on improvements to their intellectual abilities. As one of them states, “Study drugs like Modafinil don’t increase the quality of the work you’re doing, it gives you the capacity to sit and get it done whether it’s good work or bad work.” Another suggests that study drugs could actually cause you to concentrate on the wrong thing, “I would become more focused on whatever task I was completing; however this also included things that weren’t work when I started to procrastinate or clean and cook.”

Could this all simply be an indicator of the fact our diminished attention spans might be the source of the problem? Recent studies have suggested that the average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds – just less than a goldfish. Our world has become overloaded with a stream of constant information that can easily leave one feeling besieged and in need of a way to block it all out. In this case, are we merely witnessing another adaptation in society where humans race to catch up with the chaos around them? Even more pressingly, what is the price of this adaptation in the long run?