It’s that time of year again. The blossom is on the trees, and university libraries and reading rooms are heaving with students poring over laptops, textbooks and stacks of notes – exam season is here.
Though the quality of teaching is arguably as good as its ever been, and the support students get in terms of online material is brilliant, exams understandably make people anxious.
Of course, students have always felt pressure at exam time, but things seem to be different these days – thanks to increasing job competition, more graduates and higher levels of debt from tuition fees.
To cope with this exam stress, it seems increasing numbers of students are turning to so called “smart drugs”. Often referred to as “nootropics” – from the Greek, noos (mind) and tropos (growth) – these are chemicals intended to improve your mental powers.
It’s easy to see why students looking for an “edge” may turn to these substances to try and beat the competition. And it seems to be that, for a lot of them, it’s just part and parcel of gaining a degree: a recent Europe-wide survey found that most British university students generally approved of the use of such performance enhancing drugs for study.
Over in the US, as a result of student pressure, one university has actually amended its “honour code” to recognise this spike in performance enhancing substance use. The “honour code” is a set of rules or principles that govern the university community based on ideals that define what constitutes honourable behaviour. And Duke University’s amended code, makes it clear that use of prescription medication to enhance academic performance is not tolerated.
In the UK, there have also been calls for universities to be more aware of the problem. One survey found that more than 15% of Oxford University students took such drugs without a prescription – and similar levels are indicated nationwide. With a student population in excess of two million in the UK, this adds up to a lot of students potentially on smart drugs.
But students aren’t the only people taking nootropics. Office workers and city bankers are also reportedly using smart drugs to help boost productivity levels and allow them to work around the clock.
How do they work?
Some “smart drugs” make you more alert for longer. The first drugs for this were amphetamine (Adderall) and methamphetamine, which were used by both sides in World War II – for example by bomber pilots on long missions.
Essentially, amphetamines work by affecting the release and re-uptake of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. These help to regular your mood and behaviour and they can become addictive.