The survey found that 67% of respondents were unaware of common drugs used for pharmacological cognitive enhancement (PCE) – the use of drugs to improve cognitive performance and function (such as concentration or memory), by healthy people. The researchers suggest that focusing on ‘misuse’ of smart drugs may concentrate on a minor problem when a more constructive and preventive route would be to support systematic UK-wide research into smart drug use and to support scientific studies into smart drug safety and efficacy. These efforts should be combined with better education of students about smart drugs.
The study, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, set out to understand PCE prevalence among UK university students. The study distinguishes between the level of current and ongoing use of PCEs (smart drugs) and past or occasional use.
9.4% of the survey sample had used either modafanil, Adderall or Ritalin at least once. However, current users, and regular past users, of methylphenidate and Adderall made up less than 1% of the study sample, respectively.
Modafinil was the only drug for which the proportion of past users and current users was almost equal (4.1% and 3.9% of the study population, respectively). This is probably due to the availability of modafinil over the internet.
The survey found that smart drugs were not a common means of cognitive enhancement. 30% of students had used energy drinks for cognitive enhancement, 24% of students had used caffeine and 10% of students reported being current users of caffeine tablets as cognitive enhancers.
About 3% of respondents had used one of three drugs, modafinil, Ritalin or Adderall for purposes other than cognitive enhancement.
Researchers found that PCE users were likely to be British male students nearing the end of an undergraduate degree course or studying at postgraduate level.
Ilina Singh, Professor of Science, Ethics & Society at King’s College London, who led the research, said: ‘The idea that there is a national, growing move towards the use of smart drugs among university students is misguided. Our findings suggest that there may be certain groups of students where there is an increased prevalence of use, perhaps because of internal or external peer pressure. Before we make general claims about ‘rising’ rates of PCE in universities settings, we need to conduct good benchmarking studies. We also need an intelligent conversation about smart drugs, not based on alarmist reports.
‘A more constructive and preventive route would be to support more research into smart drug use and smart drug efficacy, combined with better education of students about smart drugs.’
The research found that while students have concerns about the ethics of PCE in the university context, there is little indication of strong principled disagreement with it. Those who had considered PCE and used smart drugs reported lower levels of ethical concern than those who were disinterested and/or unaware.
Concerns about peer pressure or coercion to use PCEs were very low among all students, but concern about coercion grew with interest in, and with personal use of, smart drugs. The study revealed that awareness of PCE use in the peer group strongly predicted personal use. Taken together, these findings suggest that direct and indirect peer pressure may be mechanisms by which PCE spreads within groups in the university context and researchers say that such group dynamics warrant further investigation.
Professor Singh said: ‘About one third of students surveyed were interested in smart drugs. But this does not mean that they were using smart drugs. Availability of the drugs and moral concerns appear to limit the conversion of interest in smart drugs into use of smart drugs. Availability of smart drugs on university campuses needs to be monitored, particularly in light of safety concerns around these drugs. In our survey, students were more likely to source smart drugs from friends than from the internet, except in the case of modafinil which is more readily available on the internet.
‘Our survey provides the first benchmark for national student use of smart drugs. Robust resilience (two out of three are unaware of common smart drugs) and low percentage of students engaged in ongoing use of smart drugs contradicts alarmist reports of ‘rising use’ of smart drugs by university students. However, further research is required because this is not a population survey.’
Notes to editors
Professor Ilina Singh is available for media interviews. Please contact Anna Mitchell, PR Manager (Arts & Sciences), on firstname.lastname@example.org or 0207 848 3092.