Can pills make you smarter?

OTTAWA (CUP) — It’s second semester, first-year university. Monday morning. Jade Jordan* drags herself out of bed and prepares for another long, difficult day of studying. Then she does a line of speed.

“Coming to university was like, ‘Holy shit, how am I going to pass? How am I going to concentrate? How am I going to do this?’”

So Jordan, who dropped out of the University of Ottawa at the beginning of her third year, turned to drugs. Like a large, but silent, faction of students, she started using them to help her do well in school.

American surveys are finding an increasing number of students are turning to cognitive-enhancing drugs, such as Ritalin, Modafinil, Adderall and even speed, to improve their academic performance. These substances are often referred to as “smart drugs”— or things that are used to enhance mental performance.

Some popular smart drugs, like coffee, are easily available while others, like the ADHD drug Ritalin, are only available through prescriptions. One survey, conducted in 2008, indicated that on some campuses as many as one in four students use these kinds of drugs for non-medical purposes.

Jordan arrived at the U of O fresh from being an honour-roll student in a secondary school of only 200 people.

“When I came to university and I wasn’t getting those As that I was in high school, I was frustrated because I was like, ‘Man, my parents sent me here. They trusted me,’” she said. “So I just panicked and gave into anything that would help me be successful again.”

Jordan first bought Ritalin from another student in her residence, but said it had no effect on her. She had friends who used both Ritalin and Adderall to study, compose papers and write exams, but for Jordan it was speed that worked the best.

“First semester I didn’t do any of the speed or any of that and I did really [poorly],” explained Jordan. Her marks increased in second semester, which she attributed to the drug use. Speed made her active, but she could focus.

“So, I would do lines, and the way that it makes you feel is almost like caffeine. I could concentrate better. I could read my books. I could stay awake.”

Little is known about how drugs like Ritalin, Adderall and Modafinal, originally designed to treat serious ailments, affect the human brain. Experts have mixed views on whether these cognitive-enhancement drugs actually work. Evidence suggests some are more helpful for people with low to normal intelligence than those with high IQs. Some are proven to enhance short-term memory in healthy individuals, as well as improve alertness and reaction time.

However, studies conducted with Ritalin show both cognitive improvement and decline in subjects.

Mike Gorgal*, a second-year history student at the U of O, acquires Ritalin from a friend whose father is a doctor. He began taking the drug during a particularly stressful time this semester. He said the Ritalin helps him focus on his work for hours, but has tried to not become dependent on the drug.

“I make it a point not to do it very often, because I don’t want to rely on it too much and I’d only take it if I procrastinate something way too long,” he explained.

He has never tried any other cognitive-enhancing substances, other than coffee, but said that Ritalin puts him in a “trance” in which he can focus on anything — even the subjects that bore him the most.

“I have the ability to focus on my own; it’s just when it comes down to the grind … and I need to get the work done … I take the Ritalin to help me focus and to help me just do what I’m supposed to do.”

While it’s becoming increasingly clear that under the pressure of university, to do well, to succeed and to maintain scholarships, students are turning toward both legal and illegal substances. What isn’t clear is whether or not their actions are considered ethical in society.

Some see the use of these drugs as cheating, because not every student has access to them. Others say their use is no different than coffee. Gorgal doesn’t think using smart drugs is problematic.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s cheating,” said Gorgal. “I’d just say it helps you focus. Some people take coffee to focus. Personally, coffee just makes me wired. Some people go on jogs to focus. I’d rather just pop a Ritalin, get work done and continue on with my day.”

Commentary on the responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs written by Stanford University’s Henry Greely and colleagues, and published in 2008 in the journal Nature, argues that taking Ritalin or other cognitive-enhancing drugs is not significantly different than eating well, taking advantage of a tutor or getting sleep before an exam.

“Drugs may seem distinctive among enhancements in that they bring about their effects by altering brain function, but in reality so does any intervention that enhances cognition,” stated the article. “Recent research has identified beneficial neural changes engendered by exercise, nutrition and sleep, as well as instruction and reading. In short, cognitive-enhancing drugs seem morally equivalent to other, more familiar, enhancements.”

The journal also published the results of an online poll that asked their readers — the majority of whom are academics and scientists — if they were using smart drugs to enhance their performance. Approximately 20 per cent of the 1,400 respondents said they had indeed taken advantage of drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin for non-medical purposes.

Brittanie Walker Reid was a community adviser for two years at the U of O, as well as a residence co-ordinator for another two. During her time working in the residences, she saw a number of students turn to cognitive enhancers as a way to deal with stress. She met with students who would drink litres of coffee during the day, then take sleeping pills to get a good night’s rest. The cycle would be repeated for days.

“It’s sort of accepted as normalized behaviour,” she said. “It’s not really questioned. It’s how we see that students should be competitive in school.”

Students who are dealing with university for the first time are often under a great deal of stress, said Reid. They are in large classes, struggling with their new independence, finding unique friend groups, and trying to fit into an environment laden with academic, social and parental pressures.

However, Reid pointed out that too often students who turn to smart drugs are seen as a problem, and not the victim of a more significant issue of academic expectations within society.

“I think the danger specifically of talking about whether taking these performance-enhancing drugs is good or bad, and placing a value judgment on that, is a risk of denying a huge complexity of the problem and individualizing the problem,” she explained.

Reid, who is now studying social work at Dalhousie University, said society needs to ask: “What is it about the system of education that places demands on our students that suggest they have to take these kinds of drugs in order to perform, in order to access high marks and go to the next level?

“But nobody ever asks that question; everybody just likes to point the finger at individuals.”

For students like Jordan, more action on behalf of the university might have made a world of difference.

“If I would have been stopped or informed about anything in order to cope with stress and shit like that, then I would have,” said Jordan. “But the people that came to me first were the people on the street.”

Names have been changed.

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