Beware – ‘Smart Drugs’ make you dumb

Whether it’s the last minute cramming before your end of year exams, or the 4am finishing of your 3000 word essay, there will undoubtedly be times during your at university studies where you wish you’d started your work as early as you promised yourself you would. However, once put in that panicky position, many look for a solution to enable the production of good quality, last-minute work. The common answer? Academic doping.

Academic doping is the term currently being used to describe the use of nootropic drugs (‘study drugs’) to improve your memory, motivation and attention. Examples of these drugs include Modafinil and Ritalin, and are prescribed only to treat medical disorders – i.e. they are not designed for use by healthy individuals to try and improve mental abilities.

Modafinil was developed in 1970, and is usually prescribed to treat sleep related disorders such as narcolepsy. No one understands how Modafinil exactly works, but it is thought that it aims to increase certain neurotransmitters (chemicals which carry information around the brain) in the brain, such as dopamine, noradrenaline and histamine. In the hypothalamus (an area in the brain which release regulatory hormones), histamine is vital in sleep regulation, and therefore a lack of histamine may contribute to narcolepsy.

Ritalin also aims to increase levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenaline, but this time to treat ADHD. This is due to ADHD sufferers having low levels of these neurotransmitters in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is important in inhibition, motivation and attention.

Both these drugs increase dopamine and noradrenaline levels in the brain. In a healthy individual with normal neurotransmitter levels, an excess of these chemicals allows you to stay awake and focused for a longer period of time than you would be able to usually. This idea is widely supported, through the obvious use in treating sleep disorders, and by self report from students who have tried these drugs to increase the hours in which they are productive. Not only this, but Modafinil is actually sent by the Ministry of Defence to soldiers in both Iraq and Afghanistan to keep special forces and pilots awake, when they’ve had very little sleep. However, some suggest that not only can you work for longer: you may actually improve your memory, which could benefit some students in exams.

The claimed academic improvement with the use of study drugs is not as universally accepted. One study – carried out by Dr Ahmed Dahir Mohamed, at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus – investigated the effects of the drug on responses to certain tasks, for example in the Hayling Sentence Completion Test, which involves finishing a sentence or identifying the missing word. The scientists gave 32 participants Modafinil and 32 participants a placebo drug. Dr Mohamed found that those who took Modafinil had slower reactions and an impaired ability to complete sentences within the test time.

However, Dr Mohamed also found that people who are less naturally creative might see some improvement to creatively solve a problem. As a result, the study concluded that Modafinil can ‘improve people at the lower end of the spectrum in cognition, whereas they impair people who are at the optimum level of cognitive function — healthy people, for example.’

As a result, the usefulness of these drugs is called into question. Furthermore, the long-term effects of these prescription drugs on healthy users are not yet known. One recent study suggested that doses of 400 mg of Modafinil (200 mg is given in treatment) had effects on areas of the brain which are involved in substance abuse and addiction.

Also, whilst Modafinil is a cognitive enhancer, its effects have been compared to that of excess nicotine. Professor Barbara Sahakian – who researches Modafinil as a treatment for patients with psychosis (a mental state where you lose contact with reality) – states ‘nicotine is an amazing cognitive enhancer, purely from a lab perspective. But for people who use nicotine chronically, we know their baseline cognitive function goes down and the nicotine is maybe bringing them back up to normal. So now nicotine is no longer a cognitive enhancer, it’s a cognitive normaliser.’ He suggests that Modafinil could have the same effect if it is used in the long term.

No matter the possible – and definitely unproven – short-term benefits of Modafinil and Ritalin, the uncertainty of the long-term effects should be enough to deter most people from using them. However, in those most desperate of essay hours, the long-term effects do seem less important. It’s vital to remember that not only do scientists not know what the prescribed drugs do to your brain, but buying these drugs off the internet means you don’t actually know what you’re taking at all; is your essay really worth the risk?

Hilary Robinson

Image: Nootriment

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