FOR just £2 you can buy a pill that boosts concentration and claims to improve your memory. It may sound like the plot of a Hollywood sci-fi movie, but Oxford students are popping pills – so-called “smart drugs” – to try to improve their brain power.
The two most common pills taken to increase concentration and energy levels are modafinil and ritalin.
Modafinil is a prescription-only stimulant used by doctors to treat patients suffering from the sleeping disorder narcolepsy. Ritalin is a psychostimulant drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It provides a short-term boost to energy levels and memory.
Selling ritalin and modafinil on to people not prescribed it can result in a jail sentence.
The “smart drugs” may be growing in popularity, but medical professionals have lined up to condemn the practice.
People are said to be risking their health in the hope of improving their exam results.
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said: “Prescription-only medicines should only be taken in consultation with a healthcare professional.
“People who buy medicines without the benefit of a consultation run the risk of being supplied with medicines that are not safe or suitable for them to use.”
Oxford University spokesman Matt Pickles said: “We strongly advise students against the practise of taking drugs that have not been specifically prescribed to them as this is dangerous and can be illegal.”
Barbara Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at Cambridge University, said last year: “A lot of young people are purchasing over the internet, which is a very unsafe way to get these drugs because you don’t really know what you’re getting and you don’t know if it’s safe for you as an individual.”
Both Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University encourage students to use counselling services if they are struggling with their workload and deadlines.
Head of counselling at Oxford University Alan Percy said: “We encourage students with emotional and psychological concerns to come to the counselling service, which gives students free access to professionally trained counsellors.”
Oxford Brookes University’s head of wellbeing Marion Casey added: “We’re aware that exam times can be particularly stressful. Our counselling service provides one-to-one support, relaxation training and stress management information to help our students manage their studies and exams effectively.”
Some believe pills can improve brain power, and say they should be legally available at at high street chemists.
Dr Anders Sandberg, the James Martin Fellow at the Oxford Martin School in Oxford University, specialises on human cognitive development.
Dr Anders Sandberg
He said: “A lot of people get uneasy talking about drugs, but they’re perfectly fine talking about their cup of coffee or tea.
“If it’s something that you just drink, then that’s acceptable, but if it’s a pill then suddenly it’s a drug and bad.”
He regularly takes modafinil, and said: “I find it useful. It’s like a really good cup of coffee that lasts for much longer.
“I take them to handle conferences or when I need to finish a paper.”
Dr Sandberg said: “I don’t like that people are forced to use legal loopholes and buy them from God-knows-who online.
“Students should be able to just go to the doctors and get a prescription for a stimulant if they want it, then go and buy it at Boots.”
Laurie Pycroft, a 24-year-old is studying for a master’s degree in neurosciences at Oxford University, agrees, adding: “Certain drugs can have significant benefits when used responsibly.”
However, campaign groups used to dealing with such medications are urging caution.
Mary Austin is the founder of support group ADHD Oxfordshire, and son Sam, 36, has the condition.
She said of students taking ritalin illegally: “It shouldn’t happen.
“It is not a drug you’re supposed to take without a prescription.
“People with ADHD still have a lot of problems even when they do take ritalin.”
There has been controversy about too many children being prescribed ritalin, with Oxfordshire prescriptions for ADHD medication costing the NHS more than £270,000 in 2012.
Critics say children are incorrectly diagnosed with the disorder because of poor parenting, but Mrs Austin said it is not easy for adults to get a legal prescription of the drug.
She said: “Not even GPs can give prescriptions for ritalin.
“People can only get it once they’ve been assessed and diagnosed by a mental health professional after they’ve been referred by a GP.”
“Obviously, people can get hold of anything if they really want to.”
Altering chemistry in the brain
RITALIN and modafinil work in different ways, although users claim they have very similar results.
Ritalin contains the active ingredient methylphenidate hydrochloride, which is a type of stimulant. It increases the activity of chemicals called dopamine and noradrenaline in the brain, helping to control attention and behaviour.
Despite modafinil being available by prescription, scientists are not sure of exactly how it works.
It stimulates activity and growth within the central nervous system, but it is not proven how this increases wakefulness and concentration levels.
‘If you think positively you’ll be OK’
HARRY is a final-year student at Oxford Brookes University who takes ritalin and sells it to his friends.
He said: “I have a friend in Oxford with ADHD who gets them for that, and he gives them to me.
“If for some reason when people want them, they give me a text and I send them to my guy.”
Despite this, he added: “I’m not a dealer or anything, I just get them for people.”
Harry, who has been taking the drugs on a regular basis since September added: “I’d say seven out of 10 people take them, it’s really common.
“People only use them when they have got a lot of work on and can’t manage it in the time they’ve got.”
He said: “It affects different people differently.
“For me, I get blinker vision to focus on the thing I’m doing. It makes me enjoy it more, and makes work less of a hassle.
“I can get stuck into it.”
The 21-year-old said: “I don’t get any bad side effects, but I do get a little bit anxious and jittery. If someone says a pointless comment I get annoyed.
“They last for about four hours, and after that you get a down period where you feel tired.”
Harry has no plans of reducing the number of pills he takes: “I would 100 per cent recommend them, I swear by them. A lot of people say its a placebo, but I think they really work.”
Lucy is a third-year student at Oxford Brookes University, and recently started taking ritalin to help her concentrate.
She said: “I only take it when I’m coming up to deadlines, normally only one pill a day. It depends how much work I have on.
“I hope they’re improving my grades, I feel like they are.”
She was introduced to “smart drugs” through word of mouth.
She said: “A friend told me about them and how good they are and how they helped him with his work.
“Now I buy them through him for £2 a pill.
“It’s only been this month as my work level has picked up.
“If I knew they had been around before I would have started earlier.”
She claims not to have any negative side effects. She said: “Your thoughts are concentrated on what you want to do.
“Whether that’s your work, or playing video games all night. You can control what you’re concentrating on.”
Lucy has no worries about any potential problems, saying that “thinking positively” could conquer any negative effects.
She said: “If you think that you’re going to be fine, then you probably will be fine.
“As long as you think positively, you’ll be okay.”
- Oxford Brookes University said: “The university does not condone the possession, use or supply of illegal drugs within its community and therefore will take disciplinary action or report matters to the police or other authorities where appropriate.”
Its drugs policy states if students are believed to be using drugs on university premises, a disciplinary officer assesses the situation and issues “an informal verbal warning”.
The policy says if “there is a record of the student having two previous penalties imposed for illegal drug possession or use” then the officer will recommend to the deputy vice-Chancellor it should be taken to the police.
“If a student is caught dealing drugs, the officer shall refer the matter immediately to the police.”
What the law says
FOR ritalin, the law is clear-cut: it is a Class B drug, and possession without a prescription can lead to a five-year prison sentence or an unlimited fine.
But for modafinil, things are not so simply. The drug is not listed under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, so it is not illegal to possess or buy it in the UK.
However, anyone in the UK selling it on the black market faces up to two years in jail.
As well as up to five years behind bars for possession, producing and dealing the drug could result in up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.