In today’s highly competitive academic landscape, an increasing number of Western university students turn to cognitive enhancers such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Modafinil to boost their cognitive abilities and hopefully improve their grades. While their use in clinical settings is well understood, it is worth delving into the motivations behind their non-medical cognitive enhancing use, and what are some of the potential dangers involved in their use, as well as how to minimise them.
Understanding Ritalin and Modafinil
Cognitive enhancement refers to the process of boosting mental capacity by improving both internal and external systems involved in information processing. This may be accomplished by using medications or substances known as cognitive enhancers, as well as non-pharmacological methods like lifestyle improvements. Cognitive enhancers, sometimes known as “smart drugs” or “nootropics“, are pharmacological substances that aim to improve various elements of cognition such as memory retention, alertness, attention span, learning capacities, creative levels, and motivation.
Ritalin and Modafinil are two commonly used cognitive enhancers among university students. Ritalin, a stimulant, and Modafinil, a wakefulness-promoting agent, are usually prescribed for conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, respectively. These substances impact our neurotransmitters, enhancing focus, concentration, and wakefulness.
However, their use incurs some health-related risks. ADHD drugs such as Ritalin, elevate blood pressure as well as heart rate. Case reports of sudden death, stroke, and heart attacks have raised regulatory and public concerns regarding the cardiovascular safety of these medications, particularly when used without medical supervision.
As for Modafinil, the effects of long-term use by people without narcolepsy remain unknown. A 2020 London South Bank University survey into off-prescription Modafinil use concluded that “there may be the potential for dependency to develop over time”.
Motivations and Perceptions of Use
Students’ motivations for using cognitive enhancers vary widely. Some seek to cope with the demanding academic workload, while others aspire to excel in exams and assignments. Stress is a common factor to the university experience: six in 10 students have said that they have felt too stressed to complete academic tasks at one point. There is often a perception that these substances can enhance cognitive abilities and improve performance. However, it is essential to critically examine the underlying motivations and the potential pressure to conform to societal expectations of academic success.
Many students experiencing overwhelming pressures from various university deadlines already resort to excessive amounts of coffee as an easily accessible cognitive enhancer. Modafinil, Ritalin and other similar substances have escalated this phenomenon. Determining its exact prevalence is difficult; a 2020 survey conducted among students from 54 British universities revealed that approximately 19% had used substances to enhance their cognitive abilities. The most commonly cited reasons for use were to respond to coursework demands.
Speaking to TalkingDrugs,
Lucy, (not her real name), an undergraduate student in London, revealed that she had used Ritalin since her first year at university. Although a friend had previously given her some, Lucy never felt compelled to use it until feeling overwhelmed with multiple deadlines; this was compounded by her dissatisfaction with her course. Feeling incredibly stressed, she used Ritalin for the first time:
“It was crazy, I stayed up all night and, in the morning, I was done, the essay was finished and ready to submit, I couldn’t believe myself.”
This effect proved to be incredibly useful and developed into an unwanted habit. Several weeks later, she resorted to purchasing a batch of pills to complete most of her other responsibilities.
“Initially I was taking half of a pill or a whole pill, depending on the amount of work I had to do and the motivation I had… but after a while, I could not fathom the idea of working on university tasks without 1/2 pills at the time.”
“I was loving Ritalin, I felt like I suddenly had all that motivation to do university assignments that I’ve been missing, but after some months I had to stop because I was severely underweight as I really did not eat anything during those months of constant Ritalin intake, and that led me to frequent fainting and stomach issues as well as being classified as severely underweight for which I’m currently being treated”.
Lana (also not her real name), another student in London, revealed she used Modafinil several times during the past academic year to deal with difficult and boring assignments: “I had to stop because I got to the point where it was draining me… I would take one to get my stuff done in the afternoon, but then towards the evening I had the constant feeling of throwing up as well as feeling physically drained, so it was not worth it anymore”.
Both experiences are curious because there is little literature around these cognitive enhancers’ impact on eating disorders: Ritalin has actually been studied as a treatment for eating disorders, and Modafinil for reducing binge eating compulsions.
Lucy and Lana’s stories shed some light on the complex interplay of cognitive enhancer consumption among students. While there are some benefits to repeated consumption and its resulting enhanced focus and academic performance, these need to be carefully balanced with the impact on appetite, the ability to work without chemical aids, and their wider physical and mental health impact. With universities being increasingly competitive, from the moment of admission to graduation, the demands for sustained focus and high performance are a clear draw to cognitive enhancers.
Navigating Risks and Promoting Harm Reduction
One key aspect of harm reduction is providing education and support to empower university students in making informed decisions. University wellbeing services are key to organise workshops and campaigns to raise awareness of the risks of cognitive enhancers. They can also create confidential channels for students to get drug-related information and support when needed, with universities fostering an environment that focuses on helping students deal with academic pressure.
A variety of solutions have been suggested to improve students’ ability to cope with workloads. But this must be complemented by university’s recognition that academia can be stressful for many; students will often do whatever is needed to deal with it, including using drugs that may impact their health and wellbeing.
Kingston University, in London runs a helpline called London Nightline, which is run by students. Additionally, the university has a group of “student life” advisors who evaluate the potential effects of students’ mental health issues on their academic performance. These advisers can negotiate course modifications for students with mental health requirements, such as more time for exams and other forms of assessment for those who find it difficult to engage in group projects or presentations.
Cognitive enhancers present a complex challenge, with potential risks and adverse effects. They are an understandable reaction to a demanding environment, which many are experiencing for the first time. Universities can do more to understand the motivations behind their use and explore harm reduction initiatives that raise awareness about responsible use and signs of harm. They can also offer support alongside student unions and mental health organisations, while addressing the underlying structural issues that are impacting student’s wellbeing and contributing to cognitive enhancer use.