After many nights of partying during Bushweek, students will inevitably turn to all kinds of stimulants to stay awake in lectures from coffee, to energy drinks, to caffeine pills such as No Doz and supplements such as Ginkgo Biloba. Along with these over-the-counter stimulants, university students are increasinglvy turning to ‘study drugs’ to stay awake and to focus on their study.
‘Study drugs’ are legal prescription stimulants used for non-medical purposes by healthy individuals to enhance cognitive functioning. Popular ‘study drugs’ include: Modafinil (aka. Provigil), Adderal, Dexedrine, Nootropil, Ephedrine and Ritalin – which is used to treat ADHD.
The 2013 UNSW survey has found that only 8.5% of Australian students use ‘study drugs’, but these rates are higher than in the US and Germany. However, the prevalence indicated by the survey is limited due to a lack of consistent definition for the non-medical use of prescription stimulant across studies.
Jenson* is a student at ANU who takes ‘study drugs’. He has been prescribed Strattera for his ADHD but he also acquires Modafinil through “online backchannels” which arrives in the mail with a prescription from a doctor in Canada which costs him around one dollar per pill.
“[Modafinil] dramatically increases my motivation and concentration,” says Jenson, “And my ability to not to have to go to sleep.”
Modafinil is a stimulant that promotes wakefulness, improves memory and brightens moods by increasing dopamine availability in the brain for 15-20 hours. It is prescribed as treatment for narcolepsy, shift-work sleep disorder and sleep apnea. It is also used by the US Military and astronauts on the International Space Station.
The current consensus on Modafinil is that it is safe and effective, with no side-effects and low euphoregenic or abuse potential. However, a 2009 study by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) in the United States found that the addictive potential is non-negligible. Virtually every drug that increases dopamine levels in the brain has a potential for addiction.
Nonetheless, NIDA confirms that Modafinil is still much less potent that other stimulant drugs with regard to addiction liability. Furthermore, subjects taking Modafinil do not experience withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation, unlike with other amphetamines.
Jenson uses Modafinil during intense periods of study around assignments and exams. “I have gone several nights in succession without sleep and it feels great,” says Jenson, “But afterwards, you go to sleep for a very very long time – around 14-16 hours – and you wake up feeling like shit… But I do feel that it improves my grades.”
Allegations of academic doping as cheating arise from the assumption that students take study drugs to give them an academic edge over their peers and to improve grades, which is the case for some. However, the 2013 UNSW survey found that students were more likely to be self- medicating for fatigue. The average full-time university student studies for approximately 40
hours per week and works part-time for up to 20 hours per week. Fatigue is thus an ever- present possibility in the “work-study-life” balance of the average student.
On the question whether or not academic doping is cheating, Jenson says that “One the one hand, yes, I think there are people who don’t want to take these [stimulants] for safety reasons… On the other hand, due to growing up with ADHD, I’m also given a disadvantage [and taking Modafinil] is a form of self-medication that corrects for that.”
On average, the UNSW survey found that students thought that buying and using ‘study drugs’ was neither moral nor immoral. Furthermore, many researchers in the field argue that using ‘study drugs’ is no different from other forms of performance enhancement such as hiring high- quality tutors, paying a someone to copy-edit an assignment or coming from a wealthy family.
Some performance enhancement researchers also argue that, if appropriately medically supervised, the use of study drugs can lead to a potential benefit of more effective and efficient education for society.They argue that a debate on such potential benefits is more productive than the moral sensationalism that surrounds news stories of drug doping and cheating.
Pro Vice-Chancellor of the ANU, Richard Baker, states that, “The university does not have a formal policy on ‘cognitive enhancement’ drugs. We however clearly don’t endorse the use of illegal substance nor the inappropriate use or prescription drugs”.
*The name of the student in this article has been changed.