In an increasingly competitive world, many students are now turning to study drugs or “smart pills” to boost academic performance. They often believe that this will help them to achieve top grades, and stand out from a crowd where in some cities up to 60% of the workforce now have a degree. But is taking smart pills really a wise decision?
Because of the illegal and largely underground nature of these drugs’ consumption, the majority of the information students receive about them tends to come in the form of either “I read this story someone wrote online …” or “Becky knows a guy who thinks that…”. Worryingly, the vast majority of anecdotal evidence is largely positive and simply does not consider any potential associated risks.
For parents and students seeking to understand the truth about these apparently mysterious substances, we’ve scoured academic journals and research papers from the field of psychopharmacology to bring you balanced, impartial evidence about the benefits and dangers these drugs bring. Rather than relying on anecdotal evidence, now you can fairly assess any benefits and risks for yourself.
What are they and how do they work?
At the moment, the most common smart pills include amphetamine (AMP), methylphenidate (MPH) (more commonly known by brand names Adderall and Ritalin, respectively), and most recently, Modafinil. The distribution of AMP and MPH is legal under prescription – most commonly for ADHD and associated disorders of attention – so it’s easy to see why they’ve made their way into wider circulation as study drugs. Modafinil is also a prescribed stimulant but is often used to treat narcolepsy (sufferers of narcolepsy are very likely to fall asleep whenever in relaxing surroundings).
Although we don’t know much about how Modafinil promotes wakefulness, we know a little more about AMP and MPH. They work in similar ways to increase levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in two main neural pathways within the brain. The first leads to the frontal cortex; alteration of brain activity here may affect a person’s cognition. The second pathway ends in a part of the brain called the Nucleus Accumbens, which helps us sense pleasure. The involvement of this part of the brain indicates that these drugs may have the potential to be addictive.
Who’s taking them?
Although a lot of people claim to know someone who uses them, the prevalence of “study-stimulants” in the UK seems relatively low. According to a study conducted by King’s College and LSE researchers, fewer than 10% of university students had ever tried them, and even fewer were regular users. However, a study on American smart pill consumers suggests that students under pressure (like those who go to prestigious schools or study at higher levels of education) were the most likely to misuse these drugs – especially during exam times and before deadlines.
Do they make you smarter or improve your grades?
Many people think that these stimulants are highly effective, and, the night before your deadline, they may seem like the perfect solution. But scientific research suggests that this is not necessarily the case. Reviewing previous findings on the effects of these drugs, Elizabeth Smith and Martha Farah yielded the following results:
- Stimulants may produce weak and unreliable improvement in long term memory.
- Working memory and cognitive control show mixed effects between studies, so no conclusions can be drawn yet.
- Stimulants’ effects may help students with below-average abilities, but are unlikely to improve more gifted students.
Even the positive results found in this study do not necessarily show that stimulants make you smarter, because, in order to produce a measurable effect outside of a testing laboratory, drugs often need to produce a very strong and reliable effect inside it. In fact, a study from 2008 found that students who took these drugs had lower grades, studied less and were more likely to skip classes. We can’t be sure if stimulant use causes poor performance, or simply if poor students use these drugs as a last resort, but what seems clear is that they don’t magically convert bottom-of-the-class students into top achievers.
Interestingly, if you ask students what they experience when consuming smart pills, they tend to say that they simply feel better about tackling their mountain of work. Although it’s likely that a better outlook does help students get more work done, it’s very possible that with study drugs this may simply be a “placebo effect”. Importantly, maintaining a positive work attitude is something that can be achieved in many other ways which are likely to be more helpful and healthy than taking stimulants.
Are they addictive or harmful?
Because of the way the stimulants work, they have the potential to be addictive (remember the Nucleus Accumbens, which gives us pleasure?). In fact, empirical data suggest that a small percentage of users may be at risk. Using a sample of 15 million individuals, one study found that 10% of regular study-drug consumers met several official criteria which suggested that they were dependent on the drugs. These criteria included needing to take more of the drug to get the same effect, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
Because these drugs are medications, they are unlikely to cause damage at low and controlled doses. But it has been found that at higher doses these stimulants may affect the normal function of the brain’s neural pathways. Ultimately the amount of damage caused, and its longevity, is affected by the kind of drug, and how much of it is taken.
Should I be worried?
Although in reality a relatively small proportion of students appear to be taking these study drugs, those who do face a small risk of addiction and possible (temporary) neural damage. The main thing to remember, though, is that these drugs don’t seem to have a genuine, noticeable effect for either good or bad– any cognitive effect is minimal, and it’s clear that they don’t revolutionise under-performing students.
If you’re concerned that a friend or even your child may be at risk from their consumption of these drugs, let them know that greater brain power or better grades can never make up for any possible damage they’re doing. They may even be able to increase their productivity to the same, if not to a greater, extent by simply maintaining a positive attitude about their work. Perhaps that deadline isn’t so unachievable after all.
Written by Sophie Valentine
A MyTutor Chemistry Tutor