Students warned about the risks of taking ‘smart drugs ’

Tempted to take the easy route through university and invest in smart drugs to boost those grades? Well think again, because a statement was released last month by the government-body Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which warns new and old university students against the use of ‘smart drugs’ without a prescription to boost their academic performance.

The MHRA, which recently announced their campaign looking at the issues of buying medication online called FakeMeds, cites the potential side effects of the medications, including heart problems, psychosis, and addiction  as well as reminding students that purchasing prescription drugs without a valid prescription is illegal in the UK.

‘Smart drugs’, or ‘cognitive enhancers’, including Modafinil and Ritalin, are used to treat a range of medical conditions. Modafinil already has an established role in the treatment of narcolepsy, a condition characterized by excessive sleepiness and sleep-attacks. Ritalin is most commonly used in the treatment of Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).

Patients are able to receive the appropriate medications at the appropriate doses via a prescription from a trained doctor. However, the drugs are used by approximately 14% of students hoping to improve their grades, with purchases often done over the internet and with uncontrolled doses.

But do they work? While there are many research papers attempting to answer this question by measuring factors such as memory, cognition, attention and learning the results have been varied. A recent systematic review, which looked at 24 papers considering the effect of Modafinil in healthy individuals, discovered amongst a range of brain functions there were moderate benefit against placebo-controls.

The small trials and unreliable methods undertaken in this study meant the researchers concluded that this evidence was “weaker” than they first thought. Importantly, very few of the research papers reviewed recorded side effects that participants experienced during trials, so one of the primary questions raised by the MHRA in their statement remains unanswered.

Senior Policy Manager Lynda Scammell commented that: “Modafinil is licensed for specific medical conditions – not for use as a ‘boost’ during exams.

“Don’t put your health at risk by self-medication – it could have serious side-effects.”

Until an accurate trial is carried out, or papers are put under the gold-standard scrutiny of a meta-analysis, the jury is still out as to whether there are any benefits to taking a risk with these “smart-drugs”, both to our health, criminal records – or our pockets.


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January 2022
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