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What are university students’ views on the self-prescribing of “smart drugs”?

Margit Anne Petersen, Emily Laing and Janine M. Traulsen discuss the results of a small pilot study on students’ experience and social understandings of taking smart drugs

By Margit Anne Petersen, Emily Laing and Janine M. Traulsen

Margit Anne Petersen, Emily Laing and Janine M. Traulsen discuss the results of a small pilot study on students’ experience and social understandings of taking smart drugs

When the end of the university term is approaching, the library is usually packed, and the atmosphere is tense. Students are studying hard for their finals but that is not the only thing on their agenda. Many of them also have jobs in order to manage financially or to improve their CV. They also spend a considerable amount of time and energy living up to their own and others’ social expectations via parties, social media and extracurricular events. A growing trend in dealing with such busy schedules and high amounts of pressure is the use of prescription drugs to enhance study skills. These drugs include methylphenidate, modafinil and dexamphetamine. When used for non-medical purposes, they are called “smart drugs”, “study drugs”, “good-grade pills” or cognitive enhancers.

Pilot study

At the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, a current PhD project focuses on students’ experiences of, strategies for, and social understandings of taking smart drugs. As part of the PhD project, a pilot study was conducted during autumn 2012 involving six exchange students who were living in Denmark. Two were from the US, three from Canada and one from Australia. They were randomly selected, but the criteria for participating in the study was that they were students, and knew about smart drugs either from personal use or friends’ use.

The study consisted of a focus group and individual interviews with the students. The aim of the study was to gain a basic understanding of students’ views on smart drugs, which will help develop bigger and wider research in the future.

Enhancing study skills

Taking smart drugs enhances the ability to study for many hours at a time. “When I take a pill, I can sit and study for at least 12 hours without needing to sleep, eat or go to the bathroom … even at night,” one student reported. Others agreed and shared similar experiences. They explained that it is not just concentration and energy that are enhanced, but also motivation. One student said: “I become so interested in every sentence I read when I take Ritalin … of course that is not the reason I take it, but I see it as an added bonus.” They do not find it problematic to use these drugs: “I do the work myself. It’s not like cheating. I am just winning time.”


Is there a downside to taking these drugs? The students’ answers are somewhat vague. They mention a few minor side effects such as increased heartbeat, sweating and being slightly depressed the day after. Risks and side effects did not appear to worry these students. Thus, a major finding of this study is that the students consider it safe to use smart drugs even though they have had no contact with healthcare professionals regarding their use. Their responses, such as “I’ve never heard of an overdose on Ritalin”, “a lot of people take these drugs on an everyday basis, so it can’t be that bad to take some once in a while” or “these drugs are not like illegal drugs, they are made and sold by experts”, bear witness to the fact that these students feel safe about using smart drugs.

Who is an expert on what?

Although those in the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare professionals  are seen as experts, their expertise on the use of these cognitive enhancers is disregarded. The students determine their own need for these drugs based on their own circumstances, and not by medical indications. They get their advice from peers who have tried the drugs, and they pass on relevant information about their use to other students. They tell each other about specific dosages in relation to how long one wants to study, and what to do and not to do during an “enhanced study period”. Emphasising that the safety of using these drugs lies in the fact that they are made by experts and consumed by many people is a way for the students to legitimise the use of smart drugs for themselves and for others.

Future studies

The results of the pilot study have shown the need for qualitative studies on the use of smart drugs. Little is known about the social and cultural aspects of this kind of drug use. As we have shown, it is clear that the use of these drugs for enhancing cognition is complex. It highlights the necessity for ethical discussions of how far we should or should not be willing to go to alter our intellectual ability.

Margit Anne Petersen is a PhD student and Janine M. Traulsen is associate professor of social pharmacy, both at the University of Copenhagen. Emily Laing is a fourth-year pharmacy student at the University of Bath (correspondence to

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Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2013.11117395

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