Schools and universities are becoming more and more competitive and this is resulting in a huge amount of added pressure being placed on students. This is due to heightened competition for places at such institutions and dramatically increased workloads. In previous generations, students with upcoming exams would turn to coffee, nicotine or sweets in moments of panic, however, today’s students are turning to ‘study drugs’ to maintain their levels of concentration and motivation.
Nootropics, (the category which ‘study drugs’ fall under) are drugs and supplements that may improve cognitive function, particularly memory, creativity and motivation. But how do they do this? They protect and stimulate the neurons in the brain, leading to an increase in blood and oxygen flow to the brain. Well-known examples of these drugs include Adderall and Ritalin: often used in the treatment of ADHD and narcolepsy. These drugs are known as central nervous system (CNS) stimulants as they increase the release of certain neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine, while strictly controlling the amount that is reabsorbed back into the neuron from which they were released. This subsequently results in large amounts of neurotransmitters held in the synapse between the neurons, giving it long enough to efficiently bind to the receptor. Therefore messages to the brain are transmitted and received more effectively.
However, higher cognition and mental focus comes at a price. Side effects of these drugs include cardiac issues, psychosis, paranoia and insomnia. Recent tests have shown that Adderall and Ritalin can cause a psychological and physical dependence on those who are taking the drug on an un-prescribed basis. There is a huge worry about how these drugs could interact with alcohol, depression medication or recreational drug use. Our brains do not stop developing until we reach the age of around 25. Not much is known about the long-term side effects of these drugs but surely interfering with our brains before they are fully developed is going to have a negative impact at some point in the future?
Recent surveys are suggesting that 15-27% of students are taking un-prescribed nootropics as a way of improving their academic ability, the highest concentration of use being found at the most selective universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. Students are voicing their concerns and have said that before a big test, pills can often be seen being passed around a number of people. Consequently, individuals who are not taking them often feel at an academic disadvantage, fundamentally leading to a higher number of people choosing to use them.
The main debate surrounding this topic is the question of ‘is the use of study drugs cheating?’ Due to the number of institutions that have banned them (un-prescribed), we can assume that yes they are. While coffee and caffeine pills are available to everyone, prescription drugs are not (until one finds a means of obtaining them). Hence, taking prescription drugs to gain an advantage over others can be considered cheating. Many users would insist that they would never dream of what can be considered as ‘common cheating’, yet they are willing to cheat by means of drugs.
We can certainly see that the increase of these drugs amongst people to whom they are not prescribed shows a cultural shift towards perfectionism. With heightened academic expectations comes increased pressure to succeed. However, here at St Mary’s there is an all-rounded focus on every aspect of school life, a desire to value the whole person more than their academic results, and I believe it is this which has prevented anyone here turning to such extremes and thus I have been able to step back and look at the concept of ‘study drugs’ as a wider problem in society.
Olivia, UVI Form (Year 13)
Ritalin Molecule DR TIM EVANS / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Universal Images Group