Increasing use of ‘smart drugs’ worries experts

An increasing amount of students relies on so-called ‘smart drugs’ to help them focus during exam times. A worrying development, a group of British academics says. They call upon universities to tackle the problem.

We’ve all had those days where somehow, after only ten minutes of studying, we find ourselves watching videos of kittens on Facebook. Focus can be increasingly hard for students to find. Meanwhile, the demands that students face keep increasing. No wonder that more and more students, both in the Netherlands and in the UK, are turning to smart drugs to help them meet the demands of academic life.

How does it work?

But what exactly are these smart drugs, and how do they work? “Ritalin, Concerta, Equasym and Medikinet all rely on methylphenidate.” Paula Mommersteeg, assistant professor in medical and clinical psychology at Tilburg University, explains. “This is an amphetamine-type substance that slows down the re-uptake of dopamine and noradrenaline in neurons, allowing more dopamine and noradrenaline to affect surrounding neurons.” Dopamine and Noradrenaline are neurotransmitters that increase in situations of stress, to ensure better focus.

Fake prescriptions

These medications are usually prescribed to people who are diagnosed with ADHD. “People with ADHD usually suffer from a disrupted balance, which is then restored by this medication.” However, quite often these medications end up in the hands of people who do not suffer from any type of attention disorder. They either pick the drugs up through other people or online suppliers. Some students even study the symptoms of attention disorders and get doctors to prescribe the medication, the Guardian reports.

Drug testing

UK academics call for universities to consider taking measures to fight this increase in the use of cognitive enhancers. “Universities need to seriously consider how to react to the influx of smart drugs on campus.” Thomas Lancaster, associate dean at Staffordshire university, tells the Guardian. “Educating students about smart drugs and seeing if they view this as cheating is important here. If the trend continues, universities may need to think about drug testing to ensure the integrity of the examination process.”

The great unknown

Apart from examination integrity, the health of the students might be at risk. However, the risks of taking cognitive enhancers remains fairly unknown. “In the short term some of these drugs may not be harmful,” Tim Hales, head of the Neuroscience department at Dundee University, says “but we don’t know about their potentially harmful cumulative effects. Different students will respond differently, particularly when taking other medications, alcohol or recreational drugs at the same time.”


Taking into account the uncertainties around the safety of cognitive enhancers, you might want to steer away from using them. Not to mention that the use of prescription medication without a prescription is illegal. It might thus be better to stick to a good old cup of coffee coming exam period.


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