It’s 10pm on a Thursday night in the Law Library. Exams are fast approaching and around me students sit slumped over their books and stacks of notes. Endurance is key — some whip out chocolate; others hunt down caffeine. For my friend Harry, it’s a tiny, inconspicuous white pill.
“Modafanil,” he says, at my quizzical look. “It’s like Viagra for the brain.”
It’s the first time I’ve heard of a ‘brain Viagra’ — ‘cognitive enhancers’, ‘study drugs’, whatever you want to call it. Clearly, I’ve been living under a rock.
Harry, a 20-year-old Economics student, is not the only one turning to prescription drugs to improve his academic performance. Increasingly, students are swapping coffee, Red Bulls and chocolate for ‘smart drugs’: a group of prescription drugs used to improve concentration, memory and mental stamina for academic study. These pharmaceutical cognitive enhancers — namely Modafinil, Ritalin and Adderall — are typically used to treat disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy.
“It just keeps me awake and focused,” Harry tells me. “If you’re not in the zone for doing study, you could scroll Facebook for two hours and not know that you’ve done it.”
He offers me a tiny silver package: his secret solution. I was prepared for being offered drugs in a club, but in the library?
“Everyone I know takes it,” Harry tells me. “It’s become the norm.”
According to research conducted by the University of Maryland, one third of American college students have misused stimulant prescription drugs to improve their grades. At Oxford University, just over 15 per cent of students have taken a ‘study drug’ without a prescription. While no comparable research exists in Australia, anecdotal evidence shows that a similar culture exists.
Emily, a 21-year-old Laws/Arts student, doesn’t hesitate when I ask her if there’s a study drug culture at the University of Sydney. “Definitely,” she says. “So many of my friends take Ritalin.”
Emily admits to using Ritalin to make studying a more “enjoyable and productive” experience. “I definitely noticed the benefits of it so I kept using it. You’re so focused you don’t really notice that it’s doing anything to you, and then you come out of it and you’re like, ‘I literally just sat here for three hours doing work’.”
When I pitched the idea for this feature piece in my university media class, nearly half the class admitted to trying — or consistently using — study drugs.
My Ralph’s coffee suddenly feels inadequate. With a seemingly impossible number of readings and lectures, the idea of heightened awareness for hours is tempting.
It seems like a crossroad: to take or not to take study drugs?
Taking medication that has been prescribed for another individual is illegal in Australia. In New South Wales, Ritalin is classified as a schedule 8 drug, meaning it is regulated more strictly than other prescription-only medication. Possessing Ritalin without a script is a punishable offence. Modafinil is a schedule 4 substance but its usage is still restricted and controlled.
So how are students obtaining these drugs? For Emily, it was through friends. At her university residential college, students who are prescribed Ritalin “give it to their friends or sell it”. Some have even had to hide their prescribed medication because people would come into their rooms and take it.
Harry, on the other hand, obtained his Modafinil supply from an online store called Afnil Express. A Google search of ‘buy study drugs’ conjures up hundreds of similar ‘gray market’ online pharmacies. Clearly accessibility is no issue.
But I am skeptical. Surely misusing prescription medication to achieve hours of tunnel-vision focus doesn’t come without a cost?
Professor Matthew Kiernan, co-director of the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre, confirms my concerns around the health implications of study drugs due to their inherent abuse potential.
Medications such as Ritalin and Modafinil activate the brain by stimulating dopamine-related pathways. Dopamine is a natural chemical released by our brains, and is known as the ‘rewards’ chemical — it’s responsible for that ‘feel good, give me more’ sensation commonly released when, for example, eating or having sex.
People diagnosed with ADHD biologically produce lower levels of dopamine, making tasks that require concentration more difficult. Drugs like Ritalin are advantageous as they adjust the brain to a normal function level.
But for people who already have normal levels of dopamine, taking Ritalin leads to excessive amounts of the chemical in the brain. Overloading on dopamine is what makes users “hyper alert”, and leads to dangerous territory. According to Kiernan, study drugs hold “great potential for abuse”.
“Everyone would probably like the effects of increased dopamine,” he says, “It has been called the Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters.” Other illicit and highly addictive stimulants (speed, ecstasy, MDMA) function in the same way. Ritalin is in fact from the same class of drug as methamphetamine — yes, that’s crystal meth.
Although research on the long term effects of study drugs remains limited, Kiernan warns that misusing these drugs on an ongoing basis “can affect brain structure, and potentially blood flow, through effects on blood vessels”. For already high performing individuals such medications may even reduce brain function.
He adds that study drugs may affect mood, inducing anxiety and depression – in some cases, even psychosis. “In that setting of unpredictability, it is best to use your natural academic performance and importantly, remain safe, clear of any potential side effect of medications. One episode of psychosis may lead to an impulsive act such as suicide.”
Emily admits that taking Ritalin certainly increased her anxiety. “When I came home from the library afterwards I’d feel a bit down and flat. I think I lost weight too. You don’t eat all day — it’s weird.”
I ask Harry if he’s experienced side effects. There’s a long pause and he stares at the table.
“I didn’t have a comedown as such. It was just more that I’d been up for 48 hours straight and you’ve got to pay for that at some point, so I was just fatigued the next morning.”
A drug that helps you to stay awake for 48 hours seems like something off the movie Limitless. But I can’t help thinking, if use of drugs by sports players to enhance their performance is considered cheating, does the same apply to students in the marathon of study?
Esther Shim, Vice President of the University of Sydney Union, thinks not — although she does believe that study drugs offer users an advantage.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the same as cheating but I think the drugs definitely widen the gap between students who can or can’t afford the drugs and put those who can afford them at a clear advantage.”
Emily likens taking study drugs to ‘doping in sport’. “You’re at an advantage. People do it before exams and it definitely increases your mental capacity.”
But University of Sydney psychologist Vince Cakic says use of drugs such as Modafinil and Ritalin is no worse than sending children to a private tutor. He writes in the Journal of Medical Ethics: “The argument that these drugs should be banned for non-medical use because they confer unfair advantage is rather like suggesting private tuition be banned. These drugs might even level the playing field for those who have been disadvantaged.”
Harry says he doesn’t feel guilty about taking study drugs. He began using Modafinil when he got a job during his studies and wanted something to help him sustain his long shifts at work followed by long hours in the library.
“If I was taking it religiously and wasn’t working, and smashing my degree, then I think I’d be getting an unfair advantage… but given I’m out there only to pass and to get through my degree and get a job at the end of it, I don’t particularly think I’m beating anyone.”
Duke University in North Carolina has amended its academic honesty policy to include ‘unauthorised use of a prescription medication’. Students lobbied for this change in their desire to demonstrate to the student community that ‘using drugs to enhance academic performance constitutes cheating’.
Could such a policy ever be introduced at the University of Sydney?
“I think that there should be some kind of regulation but can acknowledge that it’s very difficult,” Shim, the USU vice president, says. “Duke’s policy seems like a good way of regulating but I doubt it would be effective in deterring students from taking study drugs.”
Indeed, without drug testing it’s difficult to see how such a policy could be enforced. Even if banned in exams, what’s to stop students using drugs for revision? And where do you draw the line between cognitive enhancers and “cheating”? Students have been using caffeine and nicotine for decades.
Clearly, it’s a morally tangled issue with no easy answers.
Well, I took the Modafinil.
Tucked away in a booth in Bosch library, I swallowed half the pill and opened up my assignment on my laptop.
It took a while to feel any effect, and even then it wasn’t a significant change. But I felt more focused. Less distracted. My thoughts didn’t drift off as much. It was like tunnel vision: just me and my essay.
I was productive that day. It didn’t make me obviously wired, just a small improvement in my focus. There was no comedown, though admittedly I didn’t sleep until 2am.
I haven’t taken it again since but the temptation to buy more — particularly with exams quickly approaching — is there. And at only $2 a pop it’s a quick and cheap fix to deal with a seemingly overwhelming amount of revision.
I see Harry again at a party on Friday night. His eyes are bloodshot and his pupils wide. He seems wired and agitated.
“I haven’t slept since Wednesday,” he tells me. “I had to finish an assignment so I took Modafinil and pulled two all-nighters on Thursday and Friday night.”
There is something profoundly sad about this. How are we at a point where students are holed up in a library all night, aided by illegally-obtained drugs?
Shim believes the culture at Sydney University to ‘overwork’ contributes to students feeling the need to take study drugs.
“Because our libraries are 24 hours, there is definitely a trend for students to complete all-nighters,” she says. “Students can’t last through the night without some kind of stimulant, like coffee or study drugs.
“I think the stress students face when they have deadlines concentrated during certain periods, compounded with balancing work and extra-curriculars, leads them to depend on study drugs too.”
A US National Survey found the highest levels of study drug use are at ‘elite’ universities, where academic competition and a pursuit of productivity are most acute. Students face immense pressure to achieve high grades, get a good job and ultimately increase their personal human capital.
“The workforce and university have become that competitive,” Harry tells me. “If I didn’t take the job opportunity or I didn’t do Modafinil and stay up for 48 hours straight, I wouldn’t pass my subjects and keep my job.”
Monash University ethicist, Professor Michael Selgelid, questions whether people resorting to study drugs are truly consenting adults making their own choices. “With the competition we have in our society, all these demands, the problem is that the choices might not actually be free even if they’re informed,” he told The Australian. “It’s not completely voluntary if people feel under pressure to do something. If it starts with smart drugs where does it end?”
One thing is for sure: if you are relying on artificial means to maintain a balance, it won’t work for an extended period. So with exams just around the corner, think twice about resorting to that little white pill — those extra few hours of concentration may not be worth the cost to your health or to society’s ever rising expectations.