“They help me stay awake, focused.”
“Imagine what those extra 10 hours of focused study will get you.”
“I want good grades. I don’t want to slip.”
These are just some of the reasons given by students for taking what they call ‘study drugs.’ Also called Nootropics, these are essentially cognitive enhancers that help you stay awake. There’s only one problem. The drugs these students are using were never meant to be ‘cognitive enhancers.’
26-year-old Sidharth (name changed) started using these drugs when he was pursuing his masters degree.
"It virtually eliminates the concept of sleep. Think what happens when you are well rested - you don’t “need” sleep right? You may or may not be energetic, but the need for sleep isn’t there. Now imagine a life where I have eight-nine hours of more time than you do. Naturally, if I want to, I can increase my productivity, whether it’s studying, project work or a freelance project. It keeps me awake, but very, very differently than coffee." - Sidharth
Sidharth would pop one pill a night during exams and he was good to go. Sometimes on consecutive days. His drug of choice? Modafinil.
Here’s the buzzkill. Modafinil is really not sold as a ‘cognitive enhancer’. It is used to treat sleep disorders like Narcolepsy. According to WebMD, Narcolepsy is a neurological condition where people face excessive daytime sleepiness and will often fall asleep without any control over it. For these patients, Modafinil will increase focus, motivation, and decision-making.
For Sidharth, the drug worked because it had virtually no side effects.
"It had replaced Redbull, coffee and cigarettes since it caused no side effects, no horrible “crashes” when it came down and no weird heart palpitations that you’d normally get from drinking more than fourcups of coffee. I wouldn’t say it was as popular as Cannabis, but everyone knew one guy who was on it - at least for a little while." - Sidharth Why Are ‘Study Drugs’ So Popular?
Modafinil is just one of the many ‘study drugs’ being used by students. Adderall and Ritalin, used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, are the drugs of choice for those studying in the US and the UK.
ADHD drugs are sold under different brand names in India and are Schedule H drugs, meaning they can only be procured with a prescription.
For those with ADHD, these drugs help increase concentration. For those who don’t have ADHD, these drugs may help with focus, but they come with side effects.
"If you don’t have ADHD, but you have undiagnosed anxiety, you can get a panic attack. If you have a heart condition, it can cause problems. It can lead to dizziness, insomnia, loss of appetite. If you have exam anxiety and you are seeking these drugs it’s counter-productive. " - Dr Amit Sen, Child Psychiatrist, Children First
According to a 2015 study carried out in the US, 17 percent of college students misuse stimulant medications prescribed for ADHD.
In India, there is no concrete data. But doctors say in more urban colleges and schools, these drugs are popular.
"These are Schedule H drugs. But those who have these on prescription may pass it on to others. Many children we speak to say they’ve heard of them. " - Dr Amit Sen
Are they hard to procure, we ask Sidharth.
"It is a painless process to procure from any chemist - there’s usually no questions asked, especially if you dress sharply or speak in English with confidence, even though it’s a prescription drug. " - Sidharth
So Are Study Drugs Addictive?
ADHD drugs have potential to be addictive, and in the US they are classified accordingly. That’s because they work by enhancing dopamine (neurotransmitter responsible for emotions, motivation, feelings of pleasure) in your brain.
There is also an ethical debate - are these students cheating by taking cognitive enhancers? Do they have undue advantage? On the other side, if there are drugs that increase your productivity, are they so bad?
Fact remains that there are real side effects, and no long term studies in healthy individuals has been carried out.
These drugs are also psychologically addictive. If you’ve taken it to deal with an exam, what’s to stop you from using it to meet a work deadline, impress your superiors or push yourself to cram more knowledge?
"You feel addicted to the idea of staying awake - the fact that you are not tired is a very empowering place to be. I did crave it after the stress period was over. The chemical didn’t cause any addictions that I knew of, the effects of having “conquered” sleep did." - Sidharth
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