Students used to take drugs to get high – now they’re swallowing pills to get their heads down | Irish Examiner

Keeping focused on big university projects is key to achieving good grades and making your three years – and £40,000 of debt – all worthwhile, so these moments are crucial. But when you’re locked in the library for 12 hours at a time, it can be a little tricky to maintain focus.

That’s why a number of UK students are looking for a quick fix to up their focus at crunch time – and in 2015, that comes in the form of prescription medication.

For students like Ben*, popping a prescription med is the perfect remedy for his wandering mind. To help power him through all-nighters, Ben turned to ADHD medicine Ritalin to help maintain focus, saying the pills were “a great boost when I was flagging a bit”.

But Professor Barbara Sahakian, one of the world’s leading experts on study drugs, warns they can be particularly risky to healthy young minds, adding that students buying them off the internet are playing Russian roulette with their lives.

Prescription drugs at a pharmacy.
(Julien Behal/PA)

Ben, an English Literature graduate from Manchester University, says: “I bought them off some medical student, who made them himself.

“They were supposedly 10mg and you could get five for £10. My friends and I would buy in bulk and split the price between us. There weren’t really ever any weird side-effects or anything unless I drank a lot of caffeine in the same sitting.”

pills on a plate

Ben continues: “The pills make doing work far more interesting, the pace of reading gets quicker, and ideas form more clearly in your mind. It’s easier to get locked on to whatever you’re studying and all of the things that usually distract you just disappear.”

According to Ritalin’s chemical make up, it does kind of make sense that Ben and his peers might enjoy heightened focus – it’s a central nervous system stimulant designed to control hyperactivity and impulse control.

And it’s not the only drug to catch the eye of aspirational students – another study aid du jour is Modafinil, a medication prescribed for narcolepsy that one in five UK students have taken, according to one survey by The Tab.

A study published in Psychopharmacology in 2003 showed that healthy participants experienced improvements in different forms of cognition and enjoyed their work more with Modafinil than without.

Barbara, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, was one of its authors and admits she can see why Modafinil might appeal to students struggling to get their heads down.


“Under a placebo, participants didn’t have much fun doing menial tasks, but under Modafinil they found it highly pleasurable. When you’re studying for exams, you want to get into the flow of it and sustain your attention, and not just give up after 10 minutes. You ideally want to be motivated, to find it interesting and enjoy it, so that’s probably what it’s doing for people who are using it – it’s not only making people focus for longer periods of time and you’re going to actually enjoy it.”

Sounds like the dream “smart pill” from Bradley Cooper movie Limitless, right? Well, before you start frantically Googling a good source for the drugs or texting round to see if any of your mates secretly have narcolepsy meds lying around, be warned: there haven’t been any long-term studies into the risks associated with healthy people taking smart drugs like Modafinil or Ritalin.

Barbara explains: “These drugs haven’t been tested on healthy people over a long period of time, so we don’t know what the long-term effects are.”

pills on a plate

She says the drugs are particularly risky to healthy young minds, as their brains are still growing.

“The prognosis is very bad for children with ADHD who don’t use drug treatments – they’re more likely to drop out of school, get into crime and make poor grades. But we don’t actually know the effects of putting ADHD medication into healthy young brains, by people who are trying to get ahead with exams. They still may be at the age when their brain is in development, and we don’t know what the impact will be.”

Those clicking their way to better grades are at an even greater risk, lured in by the shiny, seemingly-trustworthy websites promising increased brain function and unrivalled focus. Just last year, police seized a record £200,000 worth of study drugs including Modafinil and Ritalin from one such site.

Worryingly, the site was also flogging something called Sunifiram, a substance that has never actually been tested on humans. Barbara warned: “Buying these things is a little like Russian roulette, you could be buying anything off the internet; it could be a placebo, it could be a dangerous drug, it could contain toxic materials. It’s a very dangerous way to get drugs over the internet.”

So if some students are turning to chemical study aids to get through the long, hard library sessions, where does it put their peers? Emily* is a final-year politics student at Leeds University and says that she feels the pressure to knock back pills just to keep up. “I’ve never taken them myself and I wasn’t planning on doing it,” she says.

But if her drug-using peers’ results trump Emily’s, how will she feel? “I’d definitely feel pretty annoyed, I guess it would feel a bit like they were cheating,” she says.

Barbara agrees that the “cheating” element could push more students to experiment with these clever chemicals. “Students often say to me that they don’t necessarily want to take these drugs, but they feel pressured because they see other students taking them and they feel that they’re at a disadvantage.”

Where does it end? Will future generations turn out to be an army of pill-popping zombies? Who knows. For now, we suggest you close this tab and get back to your revision, this “break” has lasted three hours.

Names marked with a * have been changed.


Originally written for Snappa and published on Irish Examiner and other sites.