A new kind of drug abuse is sweeping university campuses in North America and is expected to come to Britain. Faced with the pressure of exams and essay deadlines, students are abandoning the traditional stimulants of coffee and cigarettes for Ritalin.
Unlike their parents who "blew their minds" on recreational drugs in the Sixties and Seventies, today's American students are using chemical substances in the pursuit of peak performance.
Ritalin is a stimulant drug, best known as a treatment for hyperactive children. It has found a ready black market among students who are desperate to succeed. Users say it helps them to focus and to concentrate.
In Britain, drug agencies say anecdotal reports suggest abuse of the drug is just starting and British campuses should be prepared. The traditional crutches of coffee, Pro-Plus caffeine pills and cans of Red Bull are being ditched in favour of the new chemical aid.
The Ritalin craze has sparked a debate on the ethics of using drugs for cognitive enhancement. Some experts say students who use Ritalin are doping with "brain steroids" and gaining an unfair advantage. But the students say it is no more unfair than hiring a private tutor or paying for exam coaching.
"These drugs are study tools," one said. The trend has caused alarm on campuses across the US, Canada and Australia. A study at the University of Wisconsin suggested as many as one in five students had tried Ritalin or the similar drug Adderall. At the University of Miami, posters around campus warn against the new type of drug abuse.
At McGill University in Montreal, Pierre Paul Tellier, director of health services, said: "We can't quantify it but our impression is that it is being abused just like anywhere else." David Green, a student at the University of Harvard, told The Washington Post: "In all honesty, I haven't written a paper without Ritalin since my junior year in high school."
Matt, 19, a business finance student at the University of Florida, claimed Adderall had helped to improve his grades. "It's a miracle drug," he told The Boston Globe. "It is unbelievable how my concentration boosts when I use Adderall."
The search for a short cut in learning has worried teachers. But doctors have confirmed the potential benefits of the drugs, unwittingly encouraging the trend.
Eric Heiligenstein, director of clinical psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, said: "Caffeine is fine. This is better. Students are able to accumulate more information in a shorter time. They minimise fatigue and help maintain a high performance level."
Some students have reported Ritalin parties where the drug is crushed to a powder and snorted, giving the user an amphetamine-like boost. But in most cases it has been used to help students stay awake during last-minute cramming sessions or while writing essays.
The black market has spread to Australia, where the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre has reported that single Ritalin tablets are being sold for between one Australian dollar (42p) and 20. The Royal Australian College of GPs said: "Students are using this to keep awake ... There is no question it is being diverted. The kids are selling. It's been happening more in the last couple of months."
The trade is being fuelled by the prescribing of the drug to children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Research has shown that in some American schools up to a third of boys are on Ritalin although many of them do not have ADHD.
Wealthier parents are choosing to give the drug to their well behaved but underachieving children to enhance their performance.
At a conference in New York in June on the ethics of cognitive enhancement, delegates suggested students in future might have to be dope-tested and asked to hand in a urine sample with their exam paper to prove their results were down to hard work and not pharmacology.
Martha Farah, of the University of Pennsylvania's Centre of Cognitive Neuroscience, and co-chairwoman of the conference, told The Lancet: "In my classes, everyone knows someone who is using or selling [Ritalin]. This is not unique to Penn. Research shows it is nationwide."
A study of 2,200 students at an unnamed university in North America, published in Pharmacotherapy earlier this year, found 66 of them (3 per cent) admitted abusing Ritalin in the previous year. "Illicit use of prescription-only stimulants on college campuses is a potentially serious public health issue," the study said.
Ritalin, the brand name for methylphenidate hydrochloride, was introduced in 1956 and appears to influence the way the brain responds to stimuli. It increases energy as well as confidence but also appears to help hyperactive children by increasing their ability to focus and therefore calming them.
Doctors remain confused about the contradictory effects of the drug. Possible side-effects include insomnia, loss of appetite, dizzinessand depression on withdrawal.
A spokeswoman for the British drug charity Drugscope said: "Ritalin abuse does seem to be becoming more common but we are not aware of its use in universities."
FIVE WAYS TO STAY AWAKE
RITALIN: The drug of choice for the hyperactive child, and now for the under-active student. The huge increase in (legitimate) prescribing to children in the US in recent years - more than eight million are said to be on the drug - means it is readily available on the black market. Users say it helps them focus and aids concentration.
STRONG COFFEE: The first resort of generations of bleary-eyed students. Packs a punch proportional to the strength of the brew but an average cup of filter coffee contains 100mgs of caffeine. Some research suggests that long-term coffee drinking may increase heart disease, but that it is not linked with the caffeine it contains.
PRO-PLUS PILLS: The truly instant coffee. Each pill contains 50mgs of caffeine. The instructions say take one or two with water, no more than two in any hour or 12 tablets in 24 hours. But students tend to ignore instructions. Last year, a chemistry undergraduate at Cardiff University consumed four cartons of Pro-plus (384 pills) and died.
SPEED: Amphetamines are among the most effective medicinal stimulants and have for decades occupied a place in the drugs lexicon, mostly for clubbers who want the energy to dance all night. But they have a big downside - the unpleasant side-effects which include anxiety, restlessness, headache, palpitations and insomnia.
RED BULL: ....and similar caffeine laden energy drinks have increasingly substituted for coffee among the young. One survey suggested more than half of under 24s had tried them. Red Bull contains 80 mgs of caffeine in an 8 fl oz can, compared with 35 mgs of caffeine in a standard 12 oz can of Coke. Hence the kick...Reuse content