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Enhanced intelligence: the rising use of “smart drugs" among students

As the popularity of “smart drugs” grows among students, Sadia Naeem looks at the arguments for and against their use, and emphasises these drugs have no place among pharmacy students.

Many students, nationally and globally, are turning to “smart drugs”(nootropic drugs). Nootropics drugs are marketed for certain medical conditions and are alleged to improve one’s mental performance. People who take nootropics for a reason other than their approved indication believe they may help reduce fatigue or increase alertness. 

The general consensus is that their use is immoral, unfair on those who perform honestly and, above all, dangerous.

However, a team of scientists1 threw a new attitude into the argument of memory-enhancing drugs by calling for a “presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs” (ie, in other words, legalise them).

So why do people — with the main focus on students — take nootropic drugs? The main reason, as is becoming increasingly evident these days, is the pressure on students to do well in examinations. As well as being expected to do well academically, pharmacy students, in particular, are expected to obtain summer placements (for which competition is extremely high) complete coursework, participate in continuing professional development and continually enhance their CVs in preparation for their future careers.

At the other extreme, there are those who may rely on memory-enhancing drugs because they had left their revisions too late or spent too much time partying and not put in the work necessary for success. For whatever reason, more students are resorting to “smart drugs” in order to pass their examinations.

Well known nootropics in the UK include Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Provigil (modafinil), which is indicated for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy, respectively. Nootropics may increase coercion2 (ie, an increased pressure to maintain administration of drugs even when not required). But then what is the difference between those taking nootropics and those able to afford private tuition or those who consume caffeine or vitamin supplements since these can help cope with coping with examination stress, too?

Evidently, it is the dangers posed to healthy students who consume nootropics that raise concerns since the effects of nootropics on healthy individuals is not known or understood.2 Whatever the opinion and however credible the source of it, it seems the negative side of taking nootropic drugs with the intent to improve examination performance outweighs the positive.

Additionally, little is known about nootropic drugs’ duration of action.1 The consensus is that these drugs aid performance for a short period, after which the student may revert back to flippancy and laziness.

In the world of pharmacy, it is important that those in positions of responsibility in the field are honest and hard-working and do not turn to drugs in an increasingly pressured environment. What else could the general public expect of pharmacists, in whom they put their trust when it comes to their health?

A pharmacy student or preregistration trainee who passed his or her examinations and graduated or registered with the help of methylphenidate or modafinil is unlikely to cope as effectively as one who is not suffering from drug side effects or coercion with the pressures of long working hours, angry customers, complaints and dispensing errors.

Students who are caught taking nootropic drugs would breach of the code of conduct for pharmacy students. The consequences of breaching the code include an investigation into the student and a hearing before the university’s fitness-to-practise committee. It is a requirement of every school of pharmacy, including here at the University of Manchester, to have a fitness-to-practise committee under the code.

After having heard evidence from both sides, the fitness-to-practise committee passes its judgement and can then pursue many routes of action. The student can, depending on the nature of the offence, have conditions or restrictions placed on him or her, or be suspended or excluded from the course.3

Any sanctions placed on a student must be disclosed to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society by the school of pharmacy and the sanction must be declared by the student on applying for preregistration courses or applying to register as a pharmacist.

Additionally, the misuse of drugs by pharmacists also contravenes one of the principles of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s the code of ethics: that they should be honest and trustworthy and develop their professional knowledge and competence. Pharmacists who break the code of ethics could be disciplined by the Society or struck off the Register.

So, fellow pharmacy students, never succumb to “smart drugs”. The negatives outweigh the one positive effect — “helping” you perform better at examinations.


1. Greely H, Sahakian B, Harris J, Kessler RC, Gazzaniga M, Campbell P et al. Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy. Nature 2008;456:702-5. Available at: (Accessed 12 July 2010).

2. Travis A. Government watchdog considers ban on IQ booster drugs. Available at: (accessed 12 July 2010).

3. Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. Guidance on student fitness-to-practise procedures in schools of pharmacy. Available at: (PDF 450K, accessed 21 July 2010).


Sadia Naeem is a third-year pharmacy student at the University of Manchester and student blogger for Tomorrow’s Pharmacist

Related articles:

Cognitive enhancement in the pharmacy

Enhancing capacities: right or wrong?

Citation: Tomorrow's Pharmacist URI: 11017908

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