Smart Drugs At Uni. Is The Pressure On?

Smart Drugs, Nootropics And Cognitive Enhancers

What happens when exam pressure mounts, high-grade expectations seem unreachable and your brain’s power (apparently) just can’t handle it? A lot of things. Fatigue can kick in, huge amounts of stress can build up and you can reach breaking point. And it turns out that many (but not all) young adults at university seek the same rescue remedy – legal smart drugs and other brain stimulating substances. From different forms of caffeine to psychotropic drugs, young adults in education are trialling substances in the hope they’ll boost their brain power and bump up their grades. 

In this article, we’ll run through the legal drugs some students have turned to, to seek cognitive enhancement* and look at where the future lies for smart drugs, nootropics and legal stimulants. 

*“Cognitive enhancement can be defined as the use of drugs and/or other means with the aim to improve the cognitive functions of healthy subjects in particular memory, attention, creativity and intelligence in the absence of any medical indication.” Frati, Paola et al. 

Caffeine Overload

Caffeine has become revision’s best friend, especially at university during exam time. The perfect quantities can keep you awake, tuned-in and alert. Students are popping Pro-Plus tablets, downing cups of dusty library coffee and seeking out energy drinks like Red Bull and Monster faster than they can say “I’m a caffeine addict.” Why? To pass exams, get a job in an office and live a fulfilled life climbing the corporate ladder. Sarcasm fully intended. 

Let’s look at what caffeine does to the brain. 

Caffeine is a potent psychoactive brain stimulant. A study by Nehlig A describes how, “caffeine increases energy metabolism throughout the brain but decreases at the same time cerebral blood flow, inducing a relative brain hypoperfusion. Caffeine activates noradrenaline neurons and seems to affect the local release of dopamine. Many of the alerting effects of caffeine may be related to the action of the methylxanthine on serotonin neurons… The effects of caffeine on learning, memory, performance and coordination are rather related to the methylxanthine action on arousal, vigilance and fatigue.” In short, caffeine can arouse the mind, reduce fatigue and release dopamine – that feel-good feeling.

 A swedish study by Gunilla Thelander found that by changing the maximum quantity of caffeine tablets that can be bought over the counter in a single purchase from 250 to 30, it prevented deaths through caffeine overdoses. That’s right, too much caffeine can kill. In Sweden, “95% of all cases undergoing forensic autopsy are screened for a number of drugs including caffeine.” They found that over a 10 year period 0.02% of 85,000 people autopsied had died due to caffeine overdose. This may seem small, but when you consider all of the thousands of ways you can die, this percentage does stand out.

Another caffeine-focused study by Chad J.Reissig et al., describes how marketing techniques and lack of regulatory requirements, especially in the US, mean that some drinks with a measure of 505 mg of caffeine per can (50 mg is normal) are being targeted, “primarily toward young males, for psychoactive, performance-enhancing and stimulant drug effects.” With increasing reports of “caffeine intoxication from energy drinks, and it seems likely that problems with caffeine dependence and withdrawal will also increase… Vulnerability to caffeine intoxication may be markedly increased due to an absence of pharmacological tolerance. Genetic factors may also contribute to an individual’s vulnerability to caffeine-related disorders including caffeine intoxication, dependence, and withdrawal.” Caffeine may keep students up at night to revise so they can pass their exams, but the after effects can be long-term and pretty devastating if too much caffeine is consumed. 

Smart Drugs – Nootropics

Question: Why would a student take smart drugs? 

Answer: With a chance to improve cognitive function and boost exam performance, it’s kind of obvious why they may go down this pilly path. 

Studies have shown that drugs could be used to produce “at least individuals with better cognitive functioning.” John Harris’s study explores chemical cognitive function enhancements and argues that, “enhancements are good if and only if they make people better at doing some of the things they want to do, including experiencing the world through all of the senses, assimilating and processing what is experienced, remembering and understanding things better, becoming more competent and experiencing more. Beneficial neural changes have been reported for such familiar technologies as reading, education, physical exercise, and diet.” 

However Harris is thoroughly against smart drugs when they create an unjust and unfair playing field, like for example in exams: “Smart drugs create irresistible competitive pressures such that once they are used everyone is forced to follow in order to keep up and this is coercive and corrosive.” At university level, if someone has an edge over another candidate due to smart drug use, is this fair? And what pressures does this pile onto young adults already knuckling down and working hard?

The study, Smart drugs for cognitive enhancement: ethical and pragmatic considerations in the era of cosmetic neurology, describes how, “reports in the popular press suggest that smart drugs or “nootropics” such as methylphenidate, modafinil and piracetam are increasingly being used by the healthy to augment cognitive ability.” The researchers go onto describe how current nootropics “offer only modest improvements in cognitive performance, it appears likely that more effective compounds will be developed in the future and that their off-label use will increase.” 

Notably they point out how use within academia may become more prevalent: “One sphere in which the use of these drugs may be commonplace is by healthy students within academia… It is often argued that performance-enhancing drugs should be prohibited because they create an uneven playing field. However, this appears dubious given that “unfair” advantages are already ubiquitous and generally tolerated by society. There are concerns that widespread use will indirectly coerce non-users also to employ nootropics in order to remain competitive.”

Many neuro enhancement drugs are legal when described as “therapeutic” doses. Recent research on therapeutic doses of oral methylphenidate (ritalin), have been shown in some studies to “significantly increase extracellular dopamine in the human brain.” However, some scientists also argue that the view on smart drugs has been seriously over-hyped and that “neither drug efficacy, nor the benefit-to-risk balance, nor indicators of current or growing demand provide sufficient evidence that methylphenidate is a suitable example of a cognitive enhancer with mass appeal.” Perhaps then, smart drugs are a drug of the future? 

Whenever the media does reference smart drugs, a study by Bradley J. Patridge highlighted that “87% of media articles mentioned the prevalence of neuroenhancement and 94% portrayed it as common, increasing or both. 66% referred to the academic literature to support these claims and 44% either named an author or a journal. 95% of the articles mentioned at least one possible benefit of using prescription drugs for neuroenhancement, but only 58% mentioned any risks/side effects.”

It’s clear that the pressures to succeed at university are increasing and competition is getting more and more fierce each year. When students turn to smart drugs and other alternatives to boost their brain power, it can seem extreme, but in their minds necessary to succeed. And when it comes to a quick fix, smart drugs can seem like the best option. It’ll be interesting to see where the future for smart drugs, nootropics and legal stimulants ends up. 

Until then, we’d recommend manipulating your brain in a different way by downloading the Peak – Brain Training app! It’s fun, safe and many of our games are scientifically-backed. One of these games is called Decoder which was developed by Prof. Barbara Sahakian of Cambridge University and her team. The main aim was to design a game scientifically proven to improve attention. In a study published in Frontiers of Behavioural Neuroscience, Sahakian shows that users who play Decoder significantly improve their attention in standardised tests when compared to control groups.

Brought to you by Peak, makers of the Peak – Brain Training and Peak Sleep – Sleep Better apps.

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Sources cited:

Maisie Bygraves

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