Drugs for grades: the realities of academic doping

Some have suggested there’s a rise in the use of so called ‘smart drugs’ – but how much do we know about their use and effects? Brain image from www.shutterstock.com

The use of drugs to improve academic performance goes by a number of names – “academic doping”, “cosmetic neurology”, “neuroenhancement”.

A recent survey suggested that Australian university students are using substances to improve their study at a higher rate than students in the US and Germany. And media articles often describe the practice as emerging, increasing, widespread and even rife.

But how much academic doping is actually going on in Australian higher education? And can a drug really make you smarter, anyway?

Comparing apples, oranges and a few pears

Surveys about neuroenhancement can vary wildly in their estimates of how many students are taking drugs to help them study. Prevalence studies can be difficult to compare due to differences in the sample being surveyed, as well as regulatory and cultural differences.

But other factors can have a huge effect on the headline rate that is reported. There is little consensus on the definition of “neuroenhancement” from survey to survey. There are also differences in the precise substances being asked about.

Where one survey might ask about the non-medical use of Ritalin for study purposes, others will ask about any non-medical use of any prescription stimulant; or any non-medical drug use for study including the use of illicit stimulants; or any stimulant use for study including caffeine.

Two major blind spots are recurrent in the reporting of prevalence data on neuroenhancement. The first occurs because many surveys (like the recent Australian survey mentioned above) ask students about “lifetime use” of drugs. This is not necessarily a problem in itself as lifetime usage rates can be useful information. However, lifetime figures are inevitably higher than past year or past month usage. This means that reports about the prevalence of neuroenhancement should be careful not to imply that this is the number of students who are currently engaging in academic doping.

A measure of lifetime use also doesn’t provide time points that can be used to plot a trend, meaning that there’s little evidence to support claims in that academic doping is on the rise. There are no longitudinal studies yet on neuroenhancement, but this would be the best way to effectively show trends in use over time.

A second blind spot occurs when “academic doping” is conflated with the non-medical use of prescription drugs for other purposes like recreation or self-treatment. When motives are undifferentiated, survey results can be misinterpreted and the prevalence of neuroenhancement among students can be inflated.

Helpful information or blind enthusiasm?

The use of “study drugs” is an important, but difficult, subject to discuss. Often, media reports reveal details such as where to get the drugs, how much you should take and how much it will cost to acquire drugs for non-medical purposes.

Such reports arguably straddle the line between providing information and potentially encouraging experimentation (contrary to the Australian Press Council guidelines).

Much of the concern about encouraging experimentation is related to the safety of using various substances as study drugs. Prescription stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall can have acute effects such as cardiac arrhythmia, increased anxiety or symptoms of depression. There is also a risk of dependence if used over a longer period.

We have argued before that exaggerating the prevalence of “academic doping” could also have unwanted consequences. If students are under the impression that many of their peers are using prescription stimulants to get better grades, they may feel pressured to try it for themselves in order to keep up.

Students may also get the impression that this practice is normal, and must be effective. Interestingly, there is evidence that students who have used prescription stimulants for non-medical reasons tend to use other illicit drugs at higher rates. They also tend to overestimate how many of their peers are using “smart drugs”.

Currently there is mixed data about whether stimulants offer any cognitive improvements for healthy people in tightly controlled laboratory tests – and this is a far cry from suggesting there are benefits when studying or completing academic assessments in the real world.

There is ongoing research about the non-medical use of prescription stimulants in Australia. Academics and media alike should be realistic about the limitations of what we know and mindful of inflating a bubble of enthusiasm about neuroenhancement.

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.