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.

Only available with a prescription, people often use illegal websites to get their hands on the drugs. Furthermore — as Zand would find out — they also have bad side effects.

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

In spite of these risks, many worry their use is on the rise. 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.

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.

There are subtler causes, others respond. As a society we put young people under too much pressure. We must forge a culture where success is linked less directly to academic perfection. Then students will feel less pressure to take drugs 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?


  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?

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.
What do we not know?
We do not know the precise long-term health effects of using cognitive enhancers as smart drugs, or precisely how harmful they are.

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.

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