Study drugs: Are Modafinil, Noopept and Nootropics essential in helping students on the road to exam success?

Students look at whether the use of such 'smart drugs' can carry serious side effects - and if using them is 'cheating'

Modafinil. Noopept. Adderall. Unless you’ve been prescribed these drugs for a medical treatment - such as narcolepsy - it’s possible  you might not have heard of them before. But, if you’re a student, it’s quite likely you’re familiar with these terms. All of the aforementioned are study drugs (also called Nootropics) and are substances a user will purchase for the specific use of cognitive enhancement.

But what do these drugs actually do? Let’s use Modafinil as an example: usually used for the treatment of disorders such as narcolepsy, it has been likened to the drug seen in the Bradley Cooper film, Limitless. It can increase your focus, motivation, and decision-making - but it does carry undesirable side effects, such as strong headaches.

Dr Martha J Farah is the director of the Centre for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania in the US. In a recent article, Dr Farah called into question the lack of research regarding cognitive enhancement, including study drugs. She wrote: “The majority of studies on enhancement effectiveness have been carried out on small samples, rarely more than 50 subjects, which limits their power.

“The only large-scale trial we may see is the enormous but uncontrolled and poorly monitored trial of people using these drugs on their own.”

Dr Farah also noted study drugs could have widely varied effects on individuals: “Enhancements may differ in effectiveness depending on the biological and psychological traits of the user, which complicates the effort to understand the true enhancement potential of these technologies.”

The health risks study drugs could pose are still unclear but, if Modafinil, when taken in the short-term, can improve your decision-making and problem-solving, you can imagine why a drug that improves focus and motivation would interest a student preparing for their exams. If getting that job you’ve wanted rests on whether you can deliver academically, can you blame students for trying to cognitively enhance themselves? Or are there serious drawbacks to study drugs we should be mindful of? Could taking study drugs even be considered ‘cheating’?

Three students in their final year at university - who have either used or abstained from study drugs - have spoken about their experiences with the Independent. (Note: None of the following students have been prescribed these drugs by a doctor to help with any form of medical treatment. All were taking them solely in an academic context, and discussed them as such).

1) Sarah*, University of South Wales:

I tried Modafinil and Noopept more as an experiment. I was curious. I was possibly experiencing a slight amount of panic towards the end of the term. I didn’t take them out of actual necessity.

I didn’t feel the two drugs were necessary in helping me to get through exams. I can't say I noticed any true boost in mental ability that couldn't be attributed to a placebo effect. But there were some drawbacks, as I’ll discuss later. Some of my friends, though, have self-reported good results and have anecdotal evidence of improvement. Basically, have a go if you’re curious, but take it with a pinch of salt and don’t expect it to save your grades.

Are there any drawbacks? Depends on what you’re using. Obviously, there’s the drawback of side effects from the actual drugs, especially with Adderall.

A straight A-grade friend and I had Modafinil the day before an exam and ended up having to do a compulsory all-nighter due to insomnia, coming straight out of the library to go to the exam. I ended up getting a good First - which was higher than I was expecting - with him scraping a pass, a grade that was a lot lower than he expected. So, take from that what you will, I guess.

The effectiveness of study drugs definitely seems to have a correlation with how ‘concentrated’ you are normally anyway, so it’s hardly a miracle worker. However, some of them have been pretty unpleasant, most notably the insomnia and general clouding of my mind as I experienced with Modafinil.

2) David*, Newcastle University

It’s going to be unfair to those who aren’t taking them. It would almost force the people that don’t take to be like: ‘Right, to compete, I’m going to have to take it’. I think that’s unfair. What'll that do for future generations? It would create an environment where people are getting pushed into taking them [in order to compete].

Everyone is thinking about the short-term. For example: ‘Right, this will get me that First in this essay’. But, if you think outside the box, look at what this will do to the idea of students, the ability of students, and the mind-set of them too. When does this [taking study drugs] become the norm?

The reason people are taking such drugs is because they might be thinking one step ahead and believe, in doing so, they will help them on their quest to get good grades, get a good degree, which will then help them land a good job. Essentially, though, they’re putting their careers ahead of their own health. This seems to have become the norm [amongst students], really.

Look at how many students take recreational drugs now. I don’t want to take any unnecessary moral high ground but, in terms of health issues, as with any drug, they will have effects. You just don’t know what they are yet. Most students are just buying them off the Internet. It’s unknown what they could do to you. Students might not be considering the health risks.

People just brush the health risks aside. Can you imagine, in 30 years’ time, when all these high-flying people that have earned their way to a career, are struggling with the side effects that have now hit them? Because, if you’re taking these study drugs, you’re not taking them in a prescribed dose. You’re taking them to get an essay done which, in some cases, is quite a lot.

I think it’s a personal choice. I suppose I could take study drugs if I wanted to - to compete - but I don’t feel I should, perhaps morally or maybe because of the unknown health implications. I don’t say I begrudge users because my friends take it and I’m fine with it - it's their choice. However, it is unfair because it’s providing people with an advantage. It makes a mockery of the people who are just trying really at university without the aid of study drugs.

3) Candice*, University of Nottingham

I feel that, if people want to take them, then they can. But it’s at their own risk.

I wouldn’t be annoyed if other people on my course took them, as it’s not really any of my business.

When I’ve been super-stressed with work, and haven’t been able to sleep, I’ve taken valium, which just knocks you out. However, it doesn’t really count as a study drug.

I’d consider taking study drugs, but haven’t yet.

*Names in this article have been changed

Twitter: @lucasfothergill