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Study Shows Rise in Smart Drug Use By European Students

Like their American counterparts, European college kids are using cognitive-enhancing drugs to boost exam performance.



By Paul Gaita


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Researchers in Switzerland have published a study that suggests a spike in the use of so-called cognitive enhancers, or “smart drugs,” by university students in Europe.

The study, published in November 2013, surveyed more than six thousand students at universities in the Swiss cities of Zurich and Basel, and found that one in seven subjects reported using some form of cognitive enhancing drug in the months before their exams. Among the substances reported in the study were methylphenidate, or Ritalin, as well as beta blockers and amphetamines.

Cannabis and cocaine were also noted by a small number of students, but the most commonly reported substance was alcohol, which 5.6 % of the study’s respondents noted as their drug of choice before exams. The results appeared to support findings by the British student newspaper The Tab, which noted that one in five students reported using Modafinil, a prescription medication used to treat narcolepsy, while studying for exams.

However, the results of the Swiss study were undermined by the lack of a commonly accepted definition of cognitive enhancers, as well as any effect, positive or negative, upon the user. While similar research in America and Britain has agreed on the inclusion of drugs like Ritalin and donepezil, a medication used to treat symptoms of dementia, alcohol has been excluded from these studies. Removing that data from the Swiss study would reduce the number of students reporting the use of smart drugs from 13.8 % to just 8%.

International research has also not reached any conclusive answers as to the long-term effect of smart drugs on brain chemistry, or whether they even prove effective in increasing study performance or intelligence. For now, the issue of smart drugs and competitive use has remained focused on its short-term effects, which range from sleeplessness to aggressive behavior and even psychosis, as well as its ethical implications, specifically in regard to providing an unfair academic advantage for some students.

A first year medical student in Paris criticized the use of smart drugs, noting that “if someone on smart drugs gets a better grade, it does not mean that they are naturally smarter, but that they are able to not sleep and hence revise more.” There is currently no research that completely supports, or negates, that conclusion.

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