Is the Newest University Study Drug Technically Cheating?

With the mounting pressure placed on students, many turn to smart drugs to help them study. And in the pursuit of good grades, who cares if it's fair, legal, or safe?

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Oct 30 2015, 12:45am

Image via Flickr user Geoff Greer


As university students bunker down for exam season, some are adding Modafinil to their study to-do list. One of the latest "smart drugs" that stressed-out Australian students are leaning on, Modafinil has traditionally been prescribed for narcolepsy and chronic fatigue. But its ability to increase concentration and eliminate lethargy—supposedly without the side effects of other off-script favourites like Adderall and Ritalin—has won it a growing fan base in university students. In fact, the drug is apparently so effective, public servants were reportedly using it to finish the 2014 Federal Budget.

Despite inconclusive evidence of the long-term effectiveness and risks associated with using Modafinil recreationally, overworked students are happily experimenting with the drug that promises to cut procrastination. But its addition to the roster of prescription drugs employed as study aids has raised the question—is using performance-enhancing prescription drugs cheating?

Rory is a 22-year-old psychology student who currently takes Modafinil twice a week to get through long days of work and study. When I ask whether he thinks it gives him an unfair advantage over his peers, he's quick to downplay the drug's effects. "It's not cheating because I don't think it changes much," he says. "It's like getting the perfect amount of sleep, where you wake up and the first song you hear on the radio is banging, and then you're just up and about for twelve hours."

He likens his experience with Modafinil to downing five coffees in the day, minus the heart palpitations. Rory recounts a day where he slept for four hours, woke up hungover, took half a tablet, then powered through a 17-hour shift at his part time job, and still slept normally that night. When studying, he says he can hit the books for 12 hours straight on Modafinil without feeling fatigued. "It's not like Ritalin, which is like an amphetamine," he says. "You're not going to retain information when you're getting cooked. Modafinil just makes me really productive."

Another student at the Australian Catholic University, who preferred to remain anonymous, agrees. He uses Modafinil every now and then, but doesn't reckon it gives students an upper hand. "It doesn't make you smarter. It doesn't make you go, 'I just want to study and that's all I want to do'. It doesn't really enhance you in any way, it just gives you that extra bit of concentration."

But those opinions are hardly unanimous. Students who don't use the drugs feel that being able to study for 12 hours, and then get eight hours sleep, is an unfair advantage. "It makes me feel a bit pissed off," says Ella, a psychology student who considered Modafinil during her Honours year but decided against it. "My Honours year was hell. There were days where I had no sleep at all—I would take a nap, get up to study, then nap again, rinse and repeat. It makes me upset someone might not have had to go through that, whereas I had to struggle through and worked hard."

To actually decide whether or not taking Modafinil constitutes cheating, we've got to understand the drug's exact effects. One study last year reported Modafinil caused a 30 per cent improvement in participants' language learning, but it only helped people on the day they took the drug—it didn't do much to help them remember the information later on.

Two academics at Oxford University recently analysed 24 papers produced over the past two decades on the effects of Modafinil, noting that when taken by healthy, non-sleep deprived humans, the drug "appears to consistently engender enhancement of attention, executive functions and learning." Basically, it works.

Although, one could pretty easily argue coffee and energy drinks do the same thing, but no one is cracking down on cappuccinos.

Even if it was decided that study drugs like Modafinil gave students an unfair advantage, policing them would create another set of issues. Short of mandatory urine tests during semester, it's near impossible to tell who is using these sorts of drugs.

Professor Simon Lenton, deputy director of the NDRI (National Drug Research Institute) at Curtin University, is leading an upcoming study into the use of smart drugs at universities. He says more research needs to be done before universities can start to form policies on their use.

"It's important that we find out exactly how prevalent these drugs are in Australia," says Simon. Presently, all we have to work with is one study done in 2013, which suggests four to eight per cent of Australian university students have used smart drugs.

Anecdotal evidence suggested that figure is growing. Plus, Simon warned the growing hype around smart drugs could lead more people to try them out. Students may feel compelled to take the pills to stay on equal footing with their pill-popping peers, who they see as a step ahead of them. "If people think everyone else is doing it, it becomes a bigger issue than it actually is," says Simon.

Beyond the ethics of academically dominating your peers with a certain chemical advantage, nobody really knows the health risks that come with using Modafinil long-term.

Professor Nicholas Keks, professor of psychiatry at Monash University, warns students against the use of any prescription medication outside of its intended purpose. "They can put themselves at risk to stimulant addiction," he says. "People are buying these things over the internet with no guarantee of what is in them. If anyone wanted to make a profit in this area, they could be substituting in amphetamines, and the risks of that include psychosis." A valid point considering most students don't actually have a Modafinil prescription and are buying it from unregulated online stores.

For those of you shopping for Modafinil, take note: it's illegal to obtain medication without a prescription and if your special package gets intercepted at customs, you could be charged with illegally importing drugs.

But despite the physical, legal, and ethical minefield of Modafinil, students feeling the pressure to perform are willing to risk it. "I feel I have to do well at Uni so I can get a career," says Rory, "At the same time, I have to work enough to pay rent, eat more than just mashed potatoes every night, and then be able to hang out with my friends so I can stay mentally healthy. But maybe our generation is a bunch of sooks."

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