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Wednesday, May 10, 2017
Academics call on institutions to consider measures such as drug testing to stem UK rise of drugs used to cope with exam stress
Adderall, one of the most common cognitive enhancement drugs. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images
Students at Oxford. Photograph: Pete Lusabia/Alamy Stock Photo
Sarah Marsh-Wednesday 10 May 2017
Universities must do more to tackle the growing number of students turning to “smart drugs” to cope with exam stress, leading academics have said.
UK institutions are being called on to consider measures such as drug testing to stem the rise of cognitive enhancement drugs being used by young people to improve their academic performance.
As hundreds of thousands of students across the UK prepare to sit their summer exams in coming weeks, Thomas Lancaster, an associate dean at Staffordshire University, said we were entering a “dangerous world” where students have access to the “study drugs”. He called on universities to have “frank discussions” with students and to develop policies around their use.
“Universities need to seriously consider how to react to the influx of smart drugs on campus. Educating students about smart drugs and seeing if they view this as cheating is important here. If the trend continues, universities may need to think about drug testing to ensure the integrity of the examination process,” Lancaster said.
Smart drugs, also known as nootropics, are a group of prescription drugs used to improve concentration, memory and mental stamina during periods of study. The most commonly used ones are Modafinil, Ritalin and Adderall. These substances are normally used to treat disorders such as narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Larissa Maier, a research associate at the University of Zurich, called for more education about the risks associated with the substances. Her concerns were echoed by Prof Tim Hales, the head of neuroscience at Dundee University. He said: “In the short term some of these drugs may not be harmful, but we don’t know about their potentially harmful cumulative effects. Different students will respond differently, particularly when taking other medications, alcohol or recreational drugs at the same time.”
The growth of smart drugs over the past five years has been well documented, especially in top institutions such as Oxford University. In May 2016 the Oxford student newspaper, the Cherwell, published a survey that showed 15.6% of students knowingly took Modafinil or another such drug without prescription.
Oxford has introduced workshops to educate young people about smart drugs.
A recent European study co-authored by Robert Dempsey, a lecturer in psychology at Staffordshire University, found that the majority of university students believe it is normal to use such drugs to enhance academic performance.
Maier said current estimates indicate about 10% to 15% of students have tried to enhance their cognitive performance with prescription drugs, alcohol or illegal drugs at least once. With a UK student population of 2.3 million, this works out at about 230,000 people.
Oxford University said it had not seen evidence of a widespread problem, but added that students were strongly advised not to take any unprescribed drugs. “Students who are struggling to cope personally or academically will find a range of support at Oxford. They should talk to their tutors, their college welfare officers, Oxford University Student Union, their GP, or the university counselling service.”
The health risks that the drugs could pose are still unclear, but using them without a prescription is illegal and can lead to unwanted side-effects, such as increased anxiety and heart rate.
Maier said the number of students using the drugs could increase due to increased availability both at universities and online.
Dr Dominique Thompson, the director of the students’ health service at Bristol University, said she sees a handful of students a year who come in suffering the side-effects of the medications, such as insomnia. She put the rise in use down to increased competition and pressure on young people.
Thompson said: “There is a huge pressure to do well and excel and be different to everyone else as well as financial pressure now. That may be another factor as to why students feel they need to use any means to do well.”
The Guardian heard from several students who claimed to have faked ADHD symptoms in order to be prescribed Ritalin or Adderall. One student, from UCL, said: “I obtained the drugs from a friend who wanted Ritalin to use as a smart drug. She memorised the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and convinced a GP to prescribe it.”
Non-prescription sale of Noopept, a fine white powder that its makers claim enhances cognitive ability, was banned in the UK last year under the Psychoactive Substances Act. However, several British websites appear to be actively selling this substance.
Modup, a website selling Modafinil, told the Guardian that during exam time the volume of Modafinil shipped to the UK doubles. It claimed the campuses it mainly sent stock to were Oxford and Cambridge, followed by the London institutions Imperial and the London School of Economics.
One second-year student from Cambridge University, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “I know quite a few people who have used study drugs, including several of my housemates and friends. They all tend to take Modafinil rather than either Ritalin or Adderall … given the sheer volume and quality of work expected of people here, I would be unsurprised if my college is representative of the university as a whole.”
Another student from Leeds said they had been taking Modafinil or some variant for essays and exams since the middle of second year. “My own work rate has always been fairly pathetic without it so it’s been vital for me in completing my dissertation and other big projects at uni. I do know people who work very hard anyway, but take it for the non-stop work they have to do for degrees like medicine.”
Universities do not appear to have a plan in place for tackling the problem. Dr Cathy Montgomery, a reader in psychopharmacology at Liverpool John Moores University, said: “Many universities don’t have specific policies regarding use of cognitive enhancers as this is a new area. Most universities do, however, have a drug policy, stating that the use of drugs is prohibited on campus, but this does not necessarily extend to medicines.”
But she said that before policies were put in place, more research should be done: “We need a large-scale epidemiological study looking at use of enhancers across the UK.”
Neal Patel, a spokesman for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said: “Unfortunately, prescription-only medicines are available to just about anyone with some spare cash willing to buy them from unscrupulous online providers. You may or may not get what you pay for.
“Unrealistic expectations of the benefits of these powerful medicines, coupled with peer pressure to use them, is an unhealthy mix for students. Our advice remains for people to steer clear of prescription medicines unless they are being prescribed under the supervision of a health professional.”