The dangers for students addicted to brain Viagra: Drugs claimed to boost your intellect are sweeping universities – but at what cost?
- More students turning to ‘cognitive enhancing drugs’ to boost grades
- Most popular is Modafinil, a prescription-only stimulant
- Being sold for as little as 50p, with proven memory improvement
Generations of students have depended on nothing more potent than gallons of black coffee to enable them to burn the midnight oil when studying. But now a far more sinister stimulant is sweeping campuses.
With unemployment among graduates at record levels, more and more students are turning to ‘cognitive enhancing drugs’ in the hope of boosting their grades and therefore their job prospects.
The most popular of these drugs is Modafinil, a prescription-only stimulant used by doctors to treat patients suffering from the sleeping disorder narcolepsy.
Modafinil is a prescription-only stimulant used by doctors to treat patients suffering from the sleeping disorder narcolepsy
Indeed, a new inquiry suggests that up to a quarter of students at some leading universities have experimented with it.
As a result, a highly profitable black market has developed in this and other prescription-only medicines designed to treat acute neurological conditions.
Modafinil pills are being sold for as little as 50p each and have been proven to improve memory by 10 per cent. They keep users alert and awake, increasing their ability to concentrate and process information.
However, they can have worrying side-effects — including headaches, irritableness, vomiting, irrational behaviour, tremors, palpitations and broken sleeping patterns.
Yet an investigation by the Mail has found the pills are widely available online. Websites based in Asia and the Far East, as well as British ‘smart drug entrepreneurs’, peddle them to students, academics and even City workers desperate to get an apparent ‘edge’ over their rivals.
The drug is being carefully marketed to suggest that it can unlock hidden human potential.
One website, being run from Turkey, uses a picture of the actor Bradley Cooper in the Hollywood film Limitless – Cooper plays a character who becomes almost super-human after taking a pill that unleashes 100 per cent of his brain power.
It took just minutes of trawling the internet for the Mail to be able to buy Modafinil for just 50p a pill from a Hong Kong website. Ten stronger tablets were also purchased for just £17 from a man in Dorset who posted his email address on student internet forums and offered to sell the drug. They all arrived within a week.
If they are this easy to obtain, how many aspiring students are succumbing to the temptation to take so-called ‘smart pills’?
In a recent inquiry by Sky News, one student at Oxford claimed up to one in four students had taken Modafinil.
In a recent inquiry by Sky News, one student at Oxford claimed up to one in four students had taken Modafinil
A survey by Varsity, the University of Cambridge paper, found that 10 per cent of students there admitted taking Modafinil or drugs like it to improve their ability to concentrate.
So exactly what are the dangers of using Modafinil in this way? More importantly, how can parents spot the signs that their children are using it?
One 24-year-old former student we spoke to – who we will call James – said smart pills were a regular part of his and his friends’ study routine while he read politics at Cambridge University. The drug was so popular, he says, that stickers were even put up around the library by students selling Modafinil.
‘It gave you that edge. You had a sort of study tunnel vision and your brain worked more like a computer as it processed information,’ he says. ‘It was an aid for taking notes out of books and revision when you need to just churn through stuff.
‘You could go 12 hours without looking up from your books — you were totally focused.’
From his second year, James began buying Modafinil from ‘pharmaceutical websites’ based in the Far East or Asia, the same sort that bombard inboxes with adverts for Viagra.
In his final year he took it solidly for a month.
Within minutes of taking one of these small, white, chalky pills, the heart rate begins to quicken. As the drug starts to really take effect, the user feels more energetic and focused.
‘I would get up at 8am, pop a 100mg pill and go back to sleep,’ says James. ‘Half an hour later, when the pill kicked in, you would wake up feeling very alert. It would begin to wear off by about 6pm.
‘Some of my friends were taking 400mg a day. There was a big difference between the branded pill and the inferior ones from spurious websites.
‘The cheaper ones made you buzz as your heart raced a bit. There was no way of knowing what was really in the pills.’
After regular use, he increased his dosage to 200mg a day. But James, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, began to notice worrying side effects.
‘I thought it was a bit like taking Pro-Plus (over-the-counter caffeine pills) or drinking strong coffee. But, it wasn’t. You wouldn’t take it to help with creativity. And you certainly wouldn’t have one before an exam, in part because you constantly need the toilet.
‘After popping one, I wouldn’t want any social interaction, which was useful because no one could tempt you away from studying with the offer of going to the pub for a pint. Sometimes I wouldn’t eat for the entire day. It felt like my energy was coming from the pill itself.
‘It did have an effect on my relationships because my girlfriend noticed a difference in my behaviour. I had mood swings and was quite irritable. It was as if I didn’t like being around people. We had quite a lot of arguments. It also destroyed much of my social life.’
Within minutes of taking one of these small, white, chalky pills, the heart rate begins to quicken. As the drug starts to really take effect, the user feels more energetic and focused
James, who graduated with a 2:1 three years ago, won’t take Modafinil any more because he fears it could have long-term effects on his brain, mood and relationships.
While it is not illegal to possess or buy Modafinil, anyone in the UK selling it on the black market faces up to two years in jail.
The drug works by improving the efficiency of neurotransmitters, the chemicals that relay signals between cells in the brain.
Ilina Singh, professor of science, ethics and society at King’s College London, says that there is very little reliable evidence about Modafinil use in the UK, but suggests that probably ‘around 10 per cent’ of students have used it at least once. In the U.S. around 16 per cent of the student population is said to be using smart drugs.
Professor Barbara Sahakian, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, is concerned that very little is known about the long-term effects of Modafinil. ‘Students feel pressure is being put on them to take drugs like Modafinil because they believe other students are taking them. If they don’t take them, they think they will be at a disadvantage,’ she says.
‘Not enough research has been done to see what effects these have on fit and healthy people.’
What is worryingly evident is that internet forums about smart drugs, also called nootropics — derived from the Greek for ‘mind’ and ‘bend’ or ‘turn’ — are buzzing with people discussing the best ways to buy them.
Students trade email addresses and mobile phone numbers of dealers, as well as pharmacy websites abroad that have proven trustworthy. They give testimonials claiming that Modafinil — occasionally called ‘Viagra for the brain’ — helped them plough through reading lists or cram for their exams.
Others note how the drug made them feel ‘tired, yet awake’, ‘buzzy’ or gave them a headache, stopped them sleeping or made their heart race.
This year alone, 9,610 illegal websites around the world selling counterfeit and unlicensed medicines have been closed down.
In just one week this summer, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency seized £12.2 million of unlicensed drugs in the UK, including Modafinil, Viagra and the attention deficit disorder drug Ritalin.
Experts warn would-be buyers that there is no way of being sure they are getting the authentic drug from the black market or from abroad. Research has shown that some pills are at best sugar-coated placebos, and at worst toxic.
Experts warn would-be buyers that there is no way of being sure they are getting the authentic drug from the black market or from abroad
The pack from Hong Kong that the Mail received arrived in a brown padded envelope. It was marked as containing a ‘healthcare product’. Inside was a single blister pack of ten pills, each 100mg, labelled Modalert.
Remarkably, the company that sold them, United Pharmacies, is not breaking any laws because it is legal to sell Modafinil in the region where it is based.
It states: ‘A prescription is not required as we are an Oceania-based company and operate under different laws and regulations.’
However, it has clearly identified a market for Modafinil, which it describes as a ‘study drug’, in Britain. United Pharmacies prices its pills in sterling, has an English website and has a London-based telephone number which connects to a man in Hong Kong who speaks with a refined English accent.
The website does advise customers to consult a doctor and warns of the drug’s possible side-effects including nausea, headaches, diarrhoea, tremors, nervousness, confusion, insomnia, palpitations and unusual behaviour.
Then there are the UK-based ‘smart drug’ entrepreneurs who sell Modafinil to cash-strapped students worried about being defrauded if they buy from abroad.
They offer pills at nearly £2 a tablet — nearly three or four times the price on offshore websites.
Mike, a dealer from Poole, explained in an email that in a good week he can sell 20 packs of the stronger 200mg pills at £17 each, making him at least a few hundred pounds tax free. He bulk-buys from an internet pharmaceutical company.
Like others, Mike posts his email address or mobile phone number in the comments sections of forums. In this black market consultancy, no medical questions are asked and no health advice is offered.
In the meantime, students may be boosting their exam grades — but at what cost to their health, only time will tell.
In a statement a spokesman for Universities UK, an organisation representing university vice-chancellors, said: ‘We would be very concerned if the impression were given that most students at UK universities are now taking ‘smart drugs’.
‘We are not aware of any new research or data to suggest that such drugs are widely used and available among the UK’s higher education student population of 2.5 million students.
‘Discussions on this topic in the past have been based largely on anecdotal evidence or on surveys conducted in the United States.’
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