They can boost your brainpower and help you stay awake, but just how clever are smart drugs?
What are smart drugs?
Also known as memory enhancers, cognitive enhancers or 'Botox for the brain', smart drugs are a group of medicines used to treat neurological conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Alzheimer's disease, and sleep disorders like narcolepsy. They include:
- Modafinil, developed for narcolepsy and usually sold under the brand name Provigil
- Methylphenidate, aka Ritalin or Concerta, a stimulant primarily used to treat ADHD and sometimes nicknamed 'kiddie coke'
- Adderall, a mixture of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine used for ADHD and narcolepsy
Studies show around one in five US college students have taken smart drugs to help them study. It's thought they're becoming more widely used in the UK, too. They've also been trialled by the UK and US armies, and by pilots and astronauts.
What are the effects of smart drugs?
Smart drugs improve memory, concentration and alertness, and studies show modafinil users can stay awake for longer without needing to catch up on extra sleep. People use them to aid revision sessions rather than nights out, leading experts to suggest universities should test for them - much like testing athletes for performance-enhancing drugs.
They might just sound like a step up from caffeine, but smart drugs come with a long list of potential side effects, including headaches, insomnia, nausea, anxiety, blurred vision, loss of appetite, stomach and skin problems, depression, psychosis, paranoia, palpitations, increased blood pressure, heart attacks and sudden death. "So if you're taking them to help with studying, you might find they don't help at all," says Martin Barnes of DrugScope.
Smart drugs don't mix well with alcohol and some, such as modafinil, interfere with the contraceptive pill. They aren't recommended during pregnancy (some have proved toxic to foetuses in animal tests), and they can also affect your sex drive. These are new drugs prescribed for a limited number of conditions, so their full effects have yet to be seen. "Plus, if you're under 20, your brain is still developing. We don't know enough about the long-term risks yet," says Martin.
Smart drugs and the law
Ritalin is a Class B drug. Most other smart drugs are covered by the Medicines Act and can only be taken legally in the UK with a prescription - although a loophole means this doesn't apply to drugs bought from websites based abroad for personal use.
Should I take them?
Some users say smart drugs help their studies. "I feel clearer in my thinking and ability to take in information, like after you've had a good strong coffee," says Chris, who regularly takes piracetam, a drug used to treat Alzheimer's disease, senile dementia and stroke patients.
But not everyone has a good experience. Emily, who took modafinil in the run-up to her exams, felt panicked. "I felt very detached from everyone," she says. "It was like the world just didn't feel real."
The problem with taking pharmaceuticals without a prescription is no one's checking how they might interact with other medications.
Academics, including John Harris, director of the University of Manchester's Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation, and psychologist Vince Cakic of Sydney University in Australia, have called for smart drugs to be made available for non-medical use. Others disagree. Paul Cooper, Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Education at Leicester University, says using smart drugs defeats the purpose of education. "There's no such thing as a safe drug," he says.
"There are often steps that can be taken to minimise the potentially harmful effects of medications, including guidelines provided by manufacturers," he says. "Such are the complexities of drug actions and reactions, however, manufacturers often insist that more powerful medications are only used with supervision from a medical professional."
The problem with taking pharmaceuticals without a prescription is that no one's checking how they might interact with other medications, or affect any health conditions you may have. And if you buy drugs online, you don't really know what you're getting. "Internet pharmacies are a very risky and unregulated source," says Paul.
Addressing the real problem
Teachers or lecturers don't want you to fail. Talk to them - they should be able to offer ways to cope if you're struggling.
"While there is evidence that these drugs may improve alertness and concentration for some people, if you're worrying about studying and exams, they won't address the underlying factors that are making you worry," says Martin. "The fact is that taking a tablet isn't going to turn you into Einstein. It's entirely natural and normal to be anxious. Think about how you plan your work and revision."
Performance-enhancing drugs don't make athletes popular - would you feel proud of your results if you'd taken smart drugs to get them?
Names have been changed
Image by volunteer photographer Sakina Mohammed Ali
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