1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Students celebrating graduation (Photo: Johnny Mclauchlan)
Image: picture alliance/StockPix

Smart drugs: generation self-optimization

Caroline Schmitt
October 29, 2014

Students and academics alike are popping pills to boost their brain power with a previously unseen nonchalance. Cognitive enhancers seem to be the new norm. Why?


Robin* has just taken two midterm exams. This time, he took them without his smart drug of choice: Ritalin. He had more time to study, he says, so didn’t need it.

But the 20-year-old Business student at Dalhousie University in Canada still uses the brain-enhancing stimulant a couple of times per semester - less than in his first year at university, when he took Ritalin up to once every two weeks, but a whole lot more than students a generation ago.

“One of the worst things about Ritalin,” he says, “is that it works really well. It became easier to slack off and then take it the night before an exam, do an all nighter and get a B+ or an A.”

Ritalin was originally designed to treat symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) such as hyperactivity, impulsiveness, above-average stress levels and a lack of control.

Now students like Robin, along with academics and professionals, are taking Ritalin and other “smart drugs” like Modafinil and Adderall to increase their ability to focus.

One in five students relies on smart drugs

Smart drugs are an established part of the 2014 zeitgeist. Twenty percent of American ivy league students admit to having used them for academic purposes, and one in three does not view it as cheating, according to a May 2014 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics. A group of research students in Maastricht, The Netherlands, recorded similar results, with one in four students saying they had used smart drugs on campus.

It’s the memory- and focus-boosting effects that most students seem to be after. Ritalin can enhance short-term memory by up to 10 percent, according to the Academy of Medical Sciences. And smart drugs in general are said to improve one’s ability to focus on even the most boring of tasks. But: “you don’t get smarter”, says Isabella Heuser, director of the psychological department at Charité clinic in Berlin and a leading expert in neuroenhancement. “Smart drugs do not expand your brain capacity. What they do is help you overcome the procrastination tendency.”

For Robin, Ritalin kept its promise: “I was way more focused, and could retain much more information,” he says.

Similar patterns of taking smart drugs

Robin got into using Ritalin in a similar way to many other students: “I first took it out of curiosity but I also had a 1500-word essay that was due the next day,” he says.

Plenty of students also get into the drug on the recommendation of their friends. History and Politics student Mark* was encouraged to use Ritalin by his roommate who said he had benefitted from its effects. After taking it, Mark noticed the tunnel vision the drug gave him. “It allowed me to intensely focus on whatever I was doing”, he says. “At the time I was incredibly talkative, energetic, and focused. The papers I wrote while on it turned out well, as long as I proof read them afterwards.”

Mark is so relaxed about taking smart drugs like Ritalin that he likens them to the widely-enjoyed stimulant, caffeine. “We all drink coffee to increase our mental activity; why would drugs that allow us to focus be any different?” he says.

Some might see that as remarkable nonchalance, student cockiness perhaps. But leading experts in the field of neuroenhancement share Mark’s point of view.

“In my opinion there is no fundamental difference [between taking coffee and smart drugs], they are drugs taken in order to change how the mind functions,” says Dr Anders Sandberg, research fellow and expert on human enhancement at Oxford University. He’s been using the stimulant Modafinil for seven years.

Heuser shares a similar view: she believes that people of “sound mind” should be able to access smart drugs if they feel the need. But, she says: “I’m not advocating using these drugs. It’s always better to seek professional help. Having deadline pressure or being overwhelmed is always a sign that you haven’t done careful or sufficient planning.”

ADHD: 5-minute diagnoses

Laura*, a medical student in Munich, Germany, had trouble focusing on her biochemistry course. “I wondered why I couldn't get anything into my head, and since I am an extremely lively person, I thought that something like Ritalin might help me.” She then saw her doctor, took several tests and secured herself a diagnosis for ADHD - along with a prescription for Medikinet, another drug used to treat it.

With swelling numbers of campus dwellers seeking out brain enhancing stimulants, doctors are faced with the challenge of telling the difference between them and genuine ADHD cases.

Handing out prescriptions to patients who don’t have a medical need for them is illegal and carries a prison sentence of up to five years in America. But since its release there in 1996, prescriptions for Adderall have tripled.

That could be because diagnostic tests are based on interviews and questionnaires, and the core symptoms for diagnosis of the condition are easy to find online. Many say faking them is a piece of cake. Experiments by Pennsylvania and Arizona State Universities with a group of psychology students resulted in 93 per cent being able to get prescriptions. A second similar test found that students were able to get “diagnosed” successfully after only five minutes of online research.

Psychological dependence on better brain power

Smart drugs have not been found to be physically addictive as such, but some people are suggesting that they can create a psychological addiction to being better and seemingly smarter than the rest. Writing in the New York Times, Brooklyn-based author Kate Miller described the different stages of her Adderall dependency, triggered by a demanding job at a law firm: “As my tolerance increased, I began to escalate my use. I would take pills if I yawned after I turned off my alarm. (…) I was an emotional wreck, angry, disconnected and unglued. I could focus at work, but in my own life I was blocking out the fear of facing my unfulfilled aspirations head on.”

Laura, who got hold of Medikinet so easily, has become one of the smart drug’s detractors. After taking 40mg of the drug every day for three months, she found that the only thing that really helped her work was finding a “quiet space in the library” and practising discipline.

“Medikinet made me more focused and a lot calmer, but it blocked my creativity. Even though medicine is not the most creative subject, it's important to be able to relate and link thoughts and theories,” she says.

A study published by the science journal Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience acknowledged that while Ritalin may well boost one’s short-term academic performance, it could negatively affect people’s capacity to multitask and plan ahead.

Still, there is no scientific consensus as to whether occasional use of Ritalin or Adderall inflicts any long-term damage on healthy people.

It’s that vagueness in research, the missing “risk” label, that probably makes students like Mark and Robin not think twice about using smart drugs to boost their marks.

What do you think of smart drugs: is taking them a no-brainer?

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the students spoken to.

Adderall pills (Photo: Fotolia/fullcirclephotos)
They help focus students’ attention and even pulling all-nighters becomes easier: Adderall, Ritalin or Modafinil are known as smart drugsImage: Fotolia/fullcirclephotos
Students enjoying the sunshine (Photo: Rolf Vennenbernd dpa/lnw)
Many students in the US and Europe are relaxed about taking smart drugs: "We all drink coffee to increase our mental activity; why would drugs that allow us to focus be any different?”Image: picture-alliance/dpa
Students studying in a library (Photo: Fotolia/Minerva Studio)
“Smart drugs do not expand your brain capacity. What they do is help you overcome the procrastination tendency,” says Isabella Heuer from the Charité clinic BerlinImage: Fotolia/Minerva Studio
Skip next section Explore more