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.
World's 10 most deadly street drugs
World's 10 most deadly street drugs
1/10 10. Purple Drank
One of the more unusual drugs around at the moment, purple drank was popularised in 90s hip hop culture, with the likes of Jay Z and Big Moe all mentioning it in their songs. It is a concoction of soda water, sweets and cold medicine, and is drunk due to cold medicines high codeine content, which gives the user a woozy feeling. However it can also cause respiratory issues and heart failure
2/10 9. Scopolamine
Scopolamine is a derivative from the nightshade plant found in the Northern Indian region of South America (Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela). It is generally found in a refined powder form, but can also be found as a tea. The drug is more often used by criminals due its high toxicity level (one gram is believed to be able to kill up to 20 people) making it a strong poison. However, it is also believed that the drug is blown into the faces of unexpecting victims, later causing them to lose all sense of self-control and becoming incapable of forming memories during the time they are under the influence of the drug. This tactic has reportedly been used by gangs in Colombia where there have been reports of people using scopolamine as way to convince victims to rob their own homes
3/10 8. Heroin
Founded in 1874 by C. R. Alder Wright, heroin is one of the world’s oldest drugs. Originally it was prescribed as a strong painkiller used to treat chronic pain and physical trauma. However in 1971 it was made illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Since then it has become one of the most destructive substances in the world, tearing apart communities and destroying families. The side effects of heroin include inflammation of the gums, cold sweats, a weak immune system, muscular weakness and insomnia. It can also damage blood vessels which can later cause gangrene if left untreated
4/10 7. Crack cocaine
Crack cocaine first came about in the 1980’s when cocaine became a widespread commodity within the drug trafficking world. Originally cocaine would have attracted a high price tag due to its rarity and difficulty to produce, but once it became more widespread the price dropped significantly. This resulted in drug dealers forming their cocaine into rock like shapes by using baking soda as a way of distilling the powder down into rock form. People were doing this because it allowed for them to sell cocaine at a lower quantity and to a higher number of people. The side effects of crack cocaine include liver, kidney and lung damage, as well as permanent damage to blood vessels, which can often lead to heart attacks, strokes, and ultimately death
5/10 6. Crystal meth
Not just famous because of a certain Walter H White, but also because it is one of the most destructive drugs in the world. First developed in 1887, it became widely used during the Second World War when both sides would give it to their troops to keep them awake. It is also believed that the Japanese gave it to their Kamikaze pilots before their suicide missions. After the war crystal meth was prescribed as a diet aid and remained legal until the 1970s. Since then it has fallen into the hands of Mexican gangs and has become a worldwide phenomenon, spreading throughout Europe and Asia. The effects of crystal meth are devastating. In the short-term users will become sleep depraved and anxious, and in the long-term it will cause their flesh to sink, as well as brain damage and damage of the blood vessels
6/10 5. AH-7921
AH-7921 is a synthetic opioid that was previously available to legally purchase online from vendors until it became a Class A in January 2015. The drug is believed to have 80% of the potency of morphine, and became known as the ‘legal heroin’. While there has only been one death related to AH-7921 in the UK, it is believed to be highly dangerous and capable of causing respiratory arrest and gangrene
7/10 4. Flakka
Flakka is a stimulant with a similar chemical make-up to the amphetamine-like drug found in bath salts. While the drug was originally marketed as a legal high alternative to ecstasy, the effects are significantly different. The user will feel an elevated heart rate, enhanced emotions, and, if enough is digested, strong hallucinations. The drug can cause permanent psychological damage due to it affecting the mood regulating neurons that keep the mind’s serotonin and dopamine in check, as well as possibly causing heart failure
8/10 3. Bath salts
Bath salts are a synthetic crystalline drug that is prevalent in the US. While they may sound harmless, they certainly aren’t the sort of salts you drop into a warm bath when having a relaxing night in, they are most similar to mephedrone, and have recently been featured throughout social media due to the ‘zombification’ of its. The name comes from the fact that the drug was originally sold online, and widely disguised as bath salts. The side effects include unusual psychiatric behaviour, psychosis, panic attacks and violent behaviour, as well as the possibility of a heart attack and an elevated body temperature
9/10 2. Whoonga
Whoonga is a combination of antiretroviral drugs, used to treat HIV, and various cutting agents such as detergents and poisons. The drug is widely available in South Africa due to South Africa’s high rate of HIV sufferers, and is believed to be popular due to how cheap it is when compared to prescribed antiretrovirals. The drug is highly addictive and can cause major health issues such as internal bleeding, stomach ulcers and ultimately death
10/10 1. Krokodil
Krokodil is Russia’s secret addiction. It is believed that over one million Russians are addicted to the drug. Users of krokodil are attracted to the drug due to its low price; it is sold at £20 a gram while heroin is sold for £60. However, krokodil is considered more dangerous than heroin because it is often homemade, with ingredients including painkillers, iodine, lighter fluid and industrial cleaning agents. This chemical make-up makes the drug highly dangerous and likely to cause gangrene, and eventually rotting of the flesh
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
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- Centre for Neuroscience and Society
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