Testing students for smart drugs – not so smart

Please feel free to share:ShareTweet

Please feel free to share:


This week there have been a few interesting news stories.  As a toxicologist and an academic the one story that caught my eye most was around the use of ‘smart drugs’ by university students at exam time and testing for their use.


This week quite a lot of news time has been given to reports that growing numbers of students are turning to ‘smart drugs’ to get higher grades in exams.  ‘Smart drugs’ are a collection of drugs that may be used to help aid in concentration and alertness in this case prior to exams. In an article in the Telegraph Professor Barbara Sahakian of the University of Cambridge suggest students should be drug tested prior to exams just as sports people are.  She suggests that students are buying modafinil and ritalin over the internet or faking illness to get their GP to prescribe to them.  Modafinil is a narcolepsy treatment – meaning it will help keep you awake.  It has also been used for the treatment of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) but with varying effects.  Ritalin is a trade name for methylphenidate, a drug used to help treat ADHD and some other behavioural issues.

According to the Telegraph article one in ten students at Cambridge has used a ‘cognitive enhancing drug’.  I would like to see the list of what they define as cognitive enhancing.  Nicotine is well known for increasing alertness and concentration.  Caffeine?  The article also mentions one in five academics admitting to having used ‘smart drugs’ also.  I am not sure if this is accurate or not, I have never discussed it with my colleagues, but both the numbers (one in ten and one in five) seem quite high.  It is not clear whether this is anecdotal evidence or real surveys.  Even then as I discussed in a post on a student drug survey, students may be tempted to exaggerate at times!  If caffeine and nicotine are included I would say one in five academics is a very low estimate!

Other articles and news items relating to this mention screening the students for smart drugs before exams, to ensure a level playing field.  This is akin to the doping testing in sports.  I do have a bit of a problem with this though.  Purely in terms of logistics and cost it is impossible.  At SHU we have almost 30 000 undergraduate students, each will be taking a number of exams each year.  During the Olympic games in London 2012 there were just over 5000 doping control tests undertaken (source UKAD), with just over 30 % of all athletes tested.  Where would we start with our students?  One sample from one third of students would be 10 000 samples, double that of the Olympics.  The testing regime for the Olympics cost several millions of pounds.  As for whether it is the right thing to do I am less convinced.  It would erode the trust students have in Universities leading to resentment at a ‘Big Brother’ approach, rather than us doing what we are supposed to do which is to educate and inform students of the dangers (and possible benefits) of such drugs.  I don’t go as far as Dr John Harris from Manchester Uni who positively advocates for the use of smart drugs to improve performance, but I don’t think we should be testing students for their use.

So other than cost do I object?  Well I think that the testing is not necessarily the best method for this issue.  A drug to enhance concentration is not going to help in an exam situation if you haven’t done any revision or attended lectures.  If the knowledge isn’t in your head it won’t come out.   Students would need to be taking the drugs long term to have significant benefits.   I am also not convinced of the data shown.  Is this research from the US or from the UK?  There are different regulations around prescriptions there and here and different cultures.  Obviously buying drugs from the internet should not be encouraged, nor should the use of prescription pharmaceuticals when they aren’t prescribed.


Any ideas?  I’m off for another mood enhancing coffee, feel free to share any experiences or thoughts below!


Please feel free to share:

About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.