‘Smart’ drugs – What do they really do?


From pulling all-nighters and forgetting to eat, to replacing all the blood in your veins with Red Bull, the academic demands of University life undoubtedly pushes students to extremes. In trying to keep up with deadlines and extra-curricular commitments, an increasing amount of students are turning to ‘Study’ drugs, otherwise known as nootropics, to stay afloat. According to a 2014 study by the American ‘Partnership for Drug-Free Children’, 20 percent of college students reported abusing prescription stimulants at least once. But, what are the moral and ethical implications of the proliferation of study drugs in academia? Is it similar to taking performance-enhancing drugs in sport, and could the future of academic examinations ever see drug-testing beforehand?

A common misconception is that drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin and modafinil actually make you smarter, improving the brain’s ability to remember and analyse information. This hasn’t been strictly proven, as instead, drugs such as modafinil are medically designed to improve alertness and prevent narcolepsy. When needing to write a long essay to meet a deadline, or having to memorise lots of factual information for an exam, these effects of enhanced focus can be invaluable. Ethical concerns surrounding the cognitive enhancement from ‘study’ drugs are rife — with some claiming that they are essentially a form of cheating.

It is essential to note that, as ‘study’ drugs are fairly new in their manufacturing and consumption, relatively little is known about their long-term effects. Taking these drugs in order to excel at university may be deemed as having an ‘unfair’ advantage, because the brain is being chemically altered. Yet, by these same standards, drinking a coffee before an exam would classify as chemically altering your brain. Similarly, going to an expensive private school before University could be considered as an unfair advantage. There are so many external factors that render the playing field of academia uneven, that to try and censor or ban certain advantageous activities or drugs is perhaps too problematic to implement on a large-scale.

Caffeine is undeniably classified as a drug. However, due to the fact that its use is so normalised and ingrained in contemporary society, the prospect of restricting its use in an academic environment seems absurd. But, in this case, why are ‘study’ drugs so heavily restricted, if they’re easily accessible? Perhaps, it isn’t the drugs in themselves that are the issue. Instead, a renovation of the societal perception on drugs is necessary in order to ensure that ‘study’ drugs can be used safely and effectively.

Education surrounding any kind of drug is essential, so rather than purely ‘banning’ drugs and branding them as illegal, Universities and other institutions need to support research into ‘study’ drugs. Better yet, alterations need to occur within the academic system to ensure that students aren’t pushed to the point of taking stimulant drugs. Working to decrease academic pressure through setting realistic expectations/deadlines and promoting mental health awareness is key in mitigating the increasing use of ‘study’ drugs.

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