According to reports released recently, UK universities are likely to see an increase in the use of ‘smart drugs’ by students to increase their 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 genuinely believe 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. Scientist believe Modafinil could keep its user up for 48 hours, and amazingly suggest that users won’t even have sleep ‘debt’ so one 8 hour sleep session will make up 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 it’s 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 as well 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 “they [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 opposite.
Impact spoke to one student at The University of Nottingham, who had taken these ‘smart drugs’ before to find out if they really do work. Joe Bloggs, whose name has been changed for obvious reasons, told Impact “The ones I took is 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. Joe explained that “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 more and more UK students are starting to discover the benefits. When asked if Joe would use these drugs again he replied “I would use it again, 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 computer mouse, you can find a whole host of drugs available for purchase online, which means that every student, worryingly, has easy access to them. It goes without saying though, that you don’t always get what you pay for on the net, and when it comes to something as serious as drugs, people need to be careful. With drugs easily available then, and the supposed effects speaking for themselves, some Academic’s worries that these drugs will soon, if they haven’t already, infiltrate the UK University system are quite relevant.
The use of drugs to enhance academic performance has started 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 taking 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 the use of these drugs are too great to allow students to take them freely whilst others feel that, with the right supervision, these drugs could be 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 drug if it is 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 the students that 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 potential huge 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 some cheating aspect as well as encouraging people use supplements in order to improve, rather than merely working hard to achieve their goals.
Dr Paul Howard Jones conducted a survey among 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 hot topic with a lot of 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.
It seems then, that these drugs may offer desirable effects, and that will interest an alarmingly large amount of students. With more and more students finding ways to access these stimulants, no doubt they will be making more of appearance across the country come exam period in May. And with the professionals arguing among themselves, it is difficult to predict what the future hold for these drugs. The monitoring or prevention of the use of these drugs is always going to prove difficult, and short of making each student give a urine sample before they enter the exam room, the University can’t do much to prevent students trialling these ‘smart drugs.’