Assessing 'Smart Drugs'

Published by Qmunicate

Qmunicate's controversial columnist investigates smart drugs.

Procrastination. Hmm – it's strange that even writing that word almost slips me into Useless Mode; gazing into the most unusual corners of the World Wide Web and choking my ashtray with dozens of twisted cigarettes stubs. It's a part of our academic lives which we're all frustratingly used to. However, in May, I decided that these I'll-do-it-later binges were becoming ridiculous and must stop. I had an exam the following afternoon, and despite surrounding myself with a dozen books and a few mountains of lecture notes, I hadn't read a word since settling down to do so four hours before.

It was then, in that moment of procrastination, I stumbled upon an article which seemed to suggest its antidote. The article held my concentration for longer than any YouTube video or Wikipedia page had that evening.

It said that there was a huge debate about the increasing use by students of 'smart drugs', which were, they said, “Viagra for the brain”. Modafinil was originally designed in the seventies to treat narcoleptics and later for sufferers of ADHD. However, in clinical trials, the article said, scientists had discovered something odd: if you give it to non-sufferers, it just makes them smarter. Their memory and concentration levels improve remarkably, and so does their academic performance.

Modafinil doesn't work as an amphetamine or a stimulant – it doesn't make you high, or wired – it simply works by limiting the brain's natural tendency to become sluggish or sleepy, so you can maintain a heightened line of concentration all day, and all night, or all week if you want.

I always felt sympathy for Medics who moaned at their 8-hour days and exams that ran deep into June, but was this their best-kept secret? It sounded perfect. “I get up at 5am, take a 200mg tablet, then go back to sleep for an hour. Then I get up feeling completely refreshed, and can work flat-out until 1am the following morning – I did that for a whole week,” said an undergraduate from Oxford University of a typical Modafinil day.

When my exams were over, I decided to look into getting hold of some Modafinil ahead of the new academic year. I'd heard from friends that you could get a supply by coercing someone with an irregular sleep pattern (a night-shift worker for example) into getting a prescription on your behalf. I'd also been told – to my amazement – that by feigning ADHD you can pick up a prescription of Ritalin, which works in a similar way. But after a few clicks online, they were in my shopping cart – just £30 for a month's supply, from an Indian pharmacy.

It was only at this point, the cursor hovering over the Proceed To Checkout button, that a powerful yet inconvenient wave of morality engulfed me. I was watching the news, and Dwain Chambers was on. Chambers was unable to join Team GB at the Olympics this year, because drug tests had proven him guilty of taking banned 'performance-enhancing' substances at the previous Olympics. So what's the difference between Modafinil for students and steroids for athletes? I thought.

It would also be silly to try the drugs without medical opinion. So when I returned back to Glasgow, I called Matthew Walters, a former senior lecturer in Medicine and an Honorary Physician at Western Infirmary, to arrange a discussion. While he admitted that “there is evidence that Modafinil promotes wakefulness, preserves one's attention and advances specific memory cells,” Matthew expressed a doubt on the health implications surrounding students taking them. “Even if it works for an exam or two, it can affect a person's mood or behaviour, and in the long-term, brain damage is a huge, huge risk. The Modafinil you can buy online is unlicensed and mostly untested. It could be contaminated, and, most dangerously, is supplied in compounds so strong that people who don't need it would struggle to shake off its short-term effects.”

Matthew also said that there isn't much knowledge regarding Modafinil in the medical profession – very few studies have actually been performed recently – and he attributed the popularity of 'smart drugs' to the pressures placed on university students today.

I began to think how dull the West End would be if everyone managed to obtain Modafinil – nobody wasting time, ever. The parks and the bars would be empty. University Avenue would extend to Byres Road and the library would need to grow at least six times its size to cater for the huge demand in computers and desks, in front of which all students would be huddled, each upgraded to Version 2.0s of themselves.

In the end, it's the lack of knowledge about what it could do to my brain that was a deal-breaker for me. Matthew's strong discouragement rang through my rusty, sluggish brain as I made my way back to a room full of books I intend to read, and essays I intend to write.