Survey shows one third of UK students want to take drugs to help their studies

By Callum Creaney

Around one third of students are interested in using unprescribed “smart drugs” to study better at university, according to a recent study published in PLOS One.

Published last November, the study by Kings College London and London School of Economics and Political Science sampled 877 students from the UK and Ireland; equally balanced between males and females.

Findings suggest that, while only 4% had experience taking drugs to enhance brain function, one third showed an interest in using them to assist with their studies.

The study measured attitudes towards a range of “smart drugs”, including Modafinil, Adderall and Methylphenidate (Ritalin) – only available through prescription.

Though they do not directly affect intelligence, they can dramatically enhance concentration for a short period of time and are typically prescribed to treat attention deficit disorders.

Professor Matthew Walters, head of the University of Glasgow’s Undergraduate Medical School, warned that the drugs pose a threat to university practice.

He said: “These are powerful drugs and it’s a matter of concern: if these are widely available, and the student body are as keen to get hold of them as the study would suggest, then it’s an issue.”

The common side effects of the drugs include increased irritability, aggression, nausea and disorientation, but illicitly acquiring them brings with it a variety of other issues.

Walters warned that students could never be sure of the dosage, concentration and purity of the drugs.

“Uni is a competitive place. People are looking for the best grades, so I can understand the rationale to excel, and the desire to succeed and to pass exams, but then you look at what it would involve.”

“There’s an inherent risk in taking strong medicines without medical supervision: I certainly wouldn’t endorse it or support it.”

In the survey, 70% of those interested stated that lack of availability is the only reason they aren’t using the drugs.

With a reported enrolment of more than 60,000 between Strathclyde, Glasgow University and Glasgow Caledonian University, the drugs pose a serious threat to students.

One reportedly common source for acquiring the drugs is through prescribed users. Danny Sweeney, aged 25, is prescribed methylphenidate for his Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and said that he could not have completed his degree without it. He has had to refuse a number of offers to buy his medication from him.

“One the one hand, the point in it being medicated is to try and address an imbalance, on the other I don’t blame or judge anyone for taking the chance to try and improve their chances or their grades. I think it’s easy to judge people for that, and I suspect that a lot of people would,” he said.

“The dangers are that… if there’s no-one monitoring it, who knows what they’re doing.”

Findings suggest that those most likely to take the drugs are British males, with experience of drug usage.

One student who wishes to remain anonymous, regularly uses marijuana, but plans on staying away from this “genie in the lamp”.

“It’s easy to get into a habit of altering your reality to get what you want done,” he said.

“You’re going to suddenly be held to a standard by this drug. You either have to maintain it for the rest of your life, or not bother using it at all.”

Almost half of those surveyed stated that cognitive enhancement in academia is ethically problematic. The student said that he thinks the issue lies in a misrepresentation of your own ability, rather than trying to seek an advantage over other students.

“I don’t ever want to be burdened with a first class degree if I’m not a first class student,” he said.

“It’s dishonest. Not to codes and regulations, but it’s dishonest to the self, and that’s why it’s a problem.”

Walters likened the issue to doping in athletics: “The purpose of an exam is to test your knowledge and ability, and if you’re artificially enhancing that then, the same way as if you test your students before running a 100m race, you’re giving yourself an unfair advantage.”

“I think there’s probably a stronger evidence base to support the use of drugs to assist with athletic endeavour than there is to support the use of these.”

Though the unprescribed distribution of cognitive enhancers is illegal in the UK, their consumption is not. The study recommended that universities put strategies in place to combat use of cognitive enhancers.document.currentScript.parentNode.insertBefore(s, document.currentScript);