Drug tests before exams could curb students’ Ritalin use, academics says

Universities should start conducting drug tests before exams because a growing number of students are taking brain enhancing medication such as Ritalin to help boost their performance, according to a leading academic.


Professor Barbara Sahakian, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, said students should expect to be screened for the “smart drugs”, as is done in competitive sports.

Ritalin and other drugs that can improve concentration are prescribed to treat ADHD, an attention deficit disorder, but Professor Sahakian has warned that thousands of desperate students are now buying the drug through the blackmarket and online.

Academics say the number of students using the drugs has steadily risen over the last few years as they say the pressure to do well increased during the recession, with some students even faking symptoms of ADHD in order to get prescriptions of Ritalin.

The British Psychological Society (BPS) has also launched an investigation into the growing prescription levels of the drug. There are fears that funding cuts for treatments such as counselling have led to an over reliance on medication.

Ritalin has been found to improve short-term memory in healthy people as well as those with ADHD and can also help with planning and attention.

A report by the Academy of Medical Sciences suggested that just a 10 per cent improvement in memory could raise students one grade band at A-levels or into a different degree class.

Prof Sahakian, from the university’s department of clinical neuropsychology, said more and more students are complaining to her that their peers are using the drug and gaining an unfair advantage.

While a proportion are getting the drugs legally through their doctors, many more are buying them from unregulated online pharmacies for as little as 50p a pill.

She said: “Many students have said that they feel it is cheating that some students use ‘smart drugs’ in exams. It is difficult for universities practically to address these issues, but they should have clear policy statements in regard to the use of cognitive enhancing drugs.

“Universities are yet to get a grip on the problem. While none seem to encourage its use, none do anything to actively dissuade students from using them.

“If there were random testing in exam situations, it should act as a deterrent.

“There have been many more people using the drug recently. It is logical that the easier it becomes for people to get hold of these drugs, the higher the number will become of people who take them.

“Students feel under enormous pressure, particularly during exam time and when their coursework is due. Many of them feel they have to turn to the drugs to help them concentrate better and cram for tests.”

A recent survey of Cambridge University students revealed that one in ten has taken drugs such as Ritalin, Modanil and Adderall.

One third of respondents also admitted that, given the opportunity, they would take concentration-enhancing medication.

A number admitted to buying the drugs illegally from other students on campus, who had bought them online and sold them on.

One PhD student at Sussex University, who did not want to be identified, said concentration drugs were widely used by students to give them an extra edge:

“When I was doing my finals at Newcastle University a lot of people were taking Ritalin to get them through and give them an increase in focus while revising. It was widespread,” he said.

“I was aware of people getting it off the internet. I didn’t hear of any negative effects apart from some people got so focused they would keep trying to follow a particular point deeper and deeper instead of reading everything they needed to read.

“I think people were doing it every day but mostly just around exam time and not the rest of the year.

“In Sussex I know an undergraduate who faked ADHD to get a Ritalin prescription and now he sells it on.”

However, Prof Sahakian, whose new book is called Bad Moves: How Decision-Making Goes Wrong, said the problem is not just among students, academics are also turning to the drug to help with jet-lag and cope with lectures.

“Professors talk openly about struggling to keep up, it’s hard for many to stay awake and concentrate with flying so much and attending so many lectures,” she said.

As with all drugs, Ritalin has its side effects. These include increased blood pressure and heart rate, loss of appetite, sleeping trouble, headaches, stomach aches and mood swings.

Whilst these side effects disappear once you stop taking Ritalin, they are considered to be detrimental enough to your health for it to remain illegal.

Ritalin is a Class B drug, which means a five-year prison sentence for possession and a 14-year sentence for dealing.

Academics have warned that while the drug reliably increases academic performance, it has other more harmful effects.

“Some of the complaints about Ritalin are that, because it’s used for ADHD, it tends to dampen down some sparky people a bit, but it certainly can aid quite a number of elements of cognition,” according to Prof John Harris, an ethicist at Manchester University.

“Anything that’s available on the internet is problematic in that it’s of a questionably reliable source so you don’t know if what you’re buying is Ritalin or something else.

“Rather than saying ‘fine, guys, go and buy it on the internet’, I would rather see us saying we as society can ensure a safe supply and we can ensure guidance as to use.”

Prof Donald Singer, a member of the British Pharmacological Society and professor of clinical pharmacology at Warwick University, said: “Any medicines sourced from unlicensed internet pharmacies are at risk of at best poor quality drugs, and at worse dangerous contaminants in the drugs supplied.

“Universities have a duty of care to their students – both in terms of raising awareness of the risks of use of illegal stimulants, and fairness to other students who might be disadvantaged.” Article Link…

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