Students in ‘dangerous world’ of smart drugs

Hooked: Drugs used as study aids like modafinil, Ritalin and Adderall can all be addictive.

What should we do about smart drugs? University students are risking their health by using potent prescription pills to boost their grades. Now the worrying trend is seeping into schools.

“Everyone does it. They’re just pills that make you concentrate.” Those were the words of a friend of journalist Benjamin Zand, and this was the first time he had ever heard of smart drugs. He would go on to try them himself — something he would come to regret.

“Smart drugs” refers to a range of medications known as “cognitive enhancers”. They are designed to treat specific medical conditions like ADHD and narcolepsy, but a dangerous trend now sees them being used by (otherwise healthy) university students who think the pills can boost their academic performance.

The drugs are only available with a prescription, so people often use illegal websites to get their hands on them. This means users cannot be sure what they receive is safe. Furthermore — as Zand would find out — even genuine pills can have serious side effects.

The smart drug he tried was a cognitive enhancer called modafinil, which users claim increases powers of concentration. While it gave Zand an “initial burst of energy”, he soon began to suffer: experiencing headaches, loss of appetite and sleep deprivation.

Scientists are now desperate to determine the long-term effects of these drugs. For example, some are thought to increase the risk of depression, anxiety and heart problems.

In spite of these risks, many worry their use is on the rise. Survey results vary but up to one in four university students are thought to have taken them.

The overriding reason: pressure to succeed. Scientist Barbara Sahakian claims that most students do not want to use these drugs, but feel like they cannot keep up with their peers without them.

Now some claim the same pressure is being felt in secondary schools. Although there is no official data on the amount of students who have tried smart drugs, teacher Magen Inon argues that “anywhere between 5% and 30% is a safe bet”.

But what should we do about it?

Dummy pill

A crackdown is needed, some people argue. We must do more to stop these substances getting into young people’s hands in the first place. This means harsh punishments for dealers, and publicised bans on their use in schools and universities. This would send a clear message that such academic doping is unacceptable, as well as reducing the burgeoning health risk that these drugs represent.

There are subtler causes, others respond. We should consider why students take smart drugs in the first place. As a society we put young people under too much pressure: from getting perfect grades to securing high-flying jobs. We must forge a culture where success is no longer directly linked to academic perfection. Then students will feel less pressure to take such extraordinary measures to get ahead.

You Decide

  1. If a pill existed that could instantly turn you into a genius, would it be ethical to take it?
  2. Does society value academic achievement too much, or not enough?


  1. In your own words, write down a definition of the term “drug”. Then, in one minute, write down as many words as you can that you associate with the term. Are most of your associations negative or positive?
  2. Do some wider research into smart drugs, using the resources under Become An Expert to start you off. Focus your reading on the ethical issues associated with using them. Then give yourself 15 minutes to write a response to this question: “Using a smart drug is no different to drinking a coffee. Discuss.”

Some People Say...

“There is no substitute for hard work.”

Thomas Edison

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Cognitive enhancers like modafinil, Adderall and Ritalin are largely safe to use when prescribed to treat a medical condition. While it is currently legal to buy modafinil without a prescription, it is illegal to supply them. Anecdotal evidence suggests there is some use of cognitive enhancers as smart drugs in schools, however this has not be backed up by scientific surveys.
What do we not know?
We do not know the precise long-term health effects of using cognitive enhancers such as smart drugs, or precisely how harmful they are. Furthermore, the exact extent of their use is unknown with usage surveys returning inconsistent data.

Word Watch

The most commonly used drugs are modafinil, Ritalin and Adderall.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
A disorder which can cause sufferers to suddenly fall asleep.
Academic performance
According to neurologist Barbara Sahakian, doses of modafinil can improve “attention, memory, planning and problem solving”. However, she claims there is an urgent need for long-term studies of the “safety of regular use in healthy people”.
The drug was originally developed to treat narcolepsy.
Heart problems
These dangers are related to the drug Adderall, as noted by the paper: “Prescriptions, Nonmedical Use, and Emergency Department Visits Involving Prescription Stimulants.”
One in four
According to a survey by The Tab, Oxford University’s student newspaper, 26% of students at the university claim to have used modafinil.
For example, in 2011 Duke University in American updated its honour code, stating that “the unauthorised use of prescription medication to enhance academic performance” was a form of cheating.