If you’ve been reading the national newspapers over the last couple of years you’d be forgiven for believing that students across the country, in fact across the whole world, were being inundated with new breed of, potentially dangerous, chemicals aimed at increasing their cognitive capacities i.e. smart drugs.
But what do we actually mean when we’re talking about these so called ‘smart’ drugs. What is it that makes them smart? Generally we’re referring to a variety of psychostimulants that are usually prescribed for certain medical conditions. Many people would have heard of the use, and often overuse, of Ritalin in the USA to treat children with ADHD, but Modafinil, one of the most popular drugs of this type in the UK, is also prescribed by doctors for those who suffer from narcolepsy (or excessive daytime sleepiness).
Because of the subjectivity and conflicting opinions on the nature of the disorders they are meant to be treating, the prescription of drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall is becoming an ever larger grey area. Smart drugs are therefore used, or at least prescribed for increasing concentration and wakefulness in patients whilst eliminating the need for excessive sleep. If there is a potential for these drugs to increase cognitive performance, and it’s becoming easier to get hold of them, its no surprise students would want test them out to see whether these effects could improve their grades.
Whereas in America Adderall and Ritalin are fairly commonplace, in the UK Modafinil (often purchased online from pharmacies based in India) seems to be the drug of choice amongst university students. But what exactly are the benefits of Modafinil? Advocates will tell you that it increases focus, concentration, wakefulness, and willingness to work. However at the same time it can oftentimes be difficult to distinguish any discernable effects from a placebo, especially at lower doses. A participant in a small individual BBC study took either Modafinil or a placebo on two separate days and recalled ‘on the second day [the day she was administered Modafinil] I felt “more myself”.’ Although she coulnd’t tell the difference herself, the results of the study showed a 10% increase in performance over a variety of cognitive tasks [see link below]. Obviously no generalisations can be made from such a small study but the majority of reports online seem to indicate that individual users tend to favour the potential benefits of Modafinil, often dismissing the risks. But if smart drugs really do improve our cognitive abilities, what does this mean for our schools and universities, does this give some an unfair advantage over others?
Due to ethical concerns some universities have decided that they would like to consider the use of smart drugs as a form of cheating, meaning students who were caught taking them in exams would risk being reprimanded. But at the same time is there any difference between taking a drug and using any other method to increase your grades? As Darian Meacham declares in his article on the subject:
‘It’s questionable whether there is any difference in taking a smart drug to gain an advantage and paying for extra tuition, or seeking guidance from a nutritionist on a brain-friendly diet, both of which would probably be encouraged. In fact the latter of the two, by being more expensive and probably making the bigger difference in performance than the psychostimulants in questions are probably more unfair in a strict sense.’
The ethical concerns of the potential advantages of smart drugs seem to be rather unfounded. However, the moral issue may not even need to be discussed as the actual beneficial effects Modafinil have been put into question. A recent study carried out by Dr Ahmed Dahir Mohamed at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus found that instead of improving cognitive performance Modafinil did the complete opposite:
‘We looked at how the drug acted when you are required to respond accurately and in a timely manner. Our findings were completely the opposite to the results we expected.’
Dr Mohamed found, through using a neuropsychological task known as the Hayling Sentence Completion Test on 32 participants, that Modafinil slowed down reaction times, impaired the subjects ability to respond in a timely manner and failed to improve their performance of the task:
‘Our research showed that when a task required instant reactions the drug just increased reaction times when no improvement to cognitive performance.’
So what can Modafinil help us with? When Dr Mohamed looked at participant’s ability to solve a problem in a creative manner he found that those who a sort of deficiency in creative were helped by the drug, whereas for healthy individuals it may actually stifle their ability to think laterally:
‘Our study backs up previous research that suggests psychostimulants improve people at the lower end of the spectrum in cognition whereas they impair people who are at the optimum level of cognitive function – healthy people for example’
However, due to the certain level of subjectivity of ‘creative problem solving’ studies, findings are never going to be conclusive and will be difficult to generalise to the whole population.
From my own thoroughly unscientific personal experience with smart drugs, in particular Modafinil which I took occasionally throughout essay deadline periods at university, I could potentially agree with Dr. Mohamed’s study that seems to indicate that there is no cognitive enhancement in healthy adults, at least when they’re not overly tired. In fact I once took 100mg in an exam in my first year and found it made me overly jittery meaning my concentration actually dwindled, I was sure I could have performed slightly better had I not taken the Modafinil.
However, during particularly stressful time periods with deadlines looming, Modafinil can be used, much like coffee and energy drinks are, to keep you awake and focussed when you would otherwise be needing to sleep. This is especially useful to those with bad time management! In this respect (again from my personal experience) I think Modafinil is far more beneficial to cognitive performance than the majority of caffeinated beverages. After all, as well as being prescribed as a treatment for narcolepsy, it has even been used to keep soldiers and air force pilots awake and focussed for extended periods of time without sleep.
So it seems the verdict on Modafinil, and other smart drugs, is still out. There seems to be a lot of conflicting opinions amongst scientists about their potential benefits or detrimental effects. As far as I’ve seen there has been no solid conclusive evidence to determine the real extent of the cost/reward of Modafinil. But until there is, with the ever increasing competitiveness of university life, and boundaries between grades often being so fine, it will be very difficult to try and stop any students trying to get that extra edge that smart drugs can potentially provide.