The rise and pitfalls of ‘smart drugs’

There is mounting anecdotal evidence to suggest the use of 'smart drugs' is increasing, particularly amongst young people such as students. Whether it is the Everest that is a university student's dissertation or exams, A-Levels, or GCSEs, there is always the temptation to drag that little bit more out of a study session, to stay awake that little bit longer to get a bit more work done. But there's only so much the human body can do.

What are 'smart drugs'?

'Smart drugs' supposedly boost cognitive function, memory and logical capability, and increase concentration. This then enables a person to study for longer periods and to retain more information, explaining the popularity of such supplements amongst students.

Amongst the most-used is Modafinil, a drug that is only licensed in the EU to treat narcolepsy, and the controlled drug Ritalin, which is used to treat ADHD. These are prescription drugs; developed and prescribed for reasons other than providing people with a study aid or concentration boost, rendering their use for other means as substance misuse.

Another thing to consider is the lack of research evidence, particularly for long-term effects. There is a danger inherent in the usage of any drugs, and it is irresponsible to take anything without the advice of a doctor or pharmacist.

What are the effects of 'smart drugs'?

There are many reported drawbacks and side effects of using 'smart drugs'. The plethora of negative effects includes:

  • Feeling sick and nauseous
  • Headaches
  • Inability to sleep: feeling awake or overtired at the wrong times
  • Feeling drained
  • Dehydration

It is important to think more deeply about the potential drawbacks listed here. The majority of the above will severely counteract the initial reasoning behind taking a 'smart drug' in the first place, it is clear that any time or work gained through the use of a 'smart drug' is then lost when experiencing the side effects. This raises the question of both their efficacy and their harmfulness and whether their usage may result in an exacerbation of anxiety and stress symptoms instead.

Are 'smart drugs' addictive?

It is also important to recognise the possibility of becoming reliant on a drug, to the point where a person begins to feel they cannot complete a task without it. This is driven by the origin of feeling from which a drastic decision to meddle with 'smart drugs' comes; feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, derived from a sense of hopelessness or inability to complete a task, assignment or grasp a revision topic.

Dr Richard Bowskill, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Brighton & Hove, explains: "People see themselves as anxious and depressed; self-medicate and that creates a vicious circle that leads to addiction."

It can also be called into question how satisfying any completion of a task or achievement will be if tainted by a chemical (or otherwise) leg-up. Where's the satisfaction in scaling Everest if you took a helicopter ride to the top? How damaging to a person's self-esteem could it become when they begin to believe they couldn't have done something without the help of a 'smart drug'? This links into Dr Bowskill's warning of a vicious circle being created, whereby a person becomes reliant, continues to take more and more of something until an addiction takes hold. It is a similar template to any other addiction, from alcohol to a range of drugs, the insidious spiral down.

Without the appropriate licensing, a dearth in research and knowledge of the long-term effects of the new host of 'smart drugs' available and taking into account the anecdotal evidence of negative side effects, individuals who take drugs continue to put themselves at risk of developing serious physical and mental health issues as a result.

For further details on the full range of Priory Services, including addiction support, please call 0800 840 3219