One in seven students has used 'smart' drugs for school performance

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It's a familiar scenario for most college students: facing "crunch" time during finals, midterms or just a particularly busy week.

And while the stress of deadlines, social commitments and extracurricular obligations may prepare students for the real world, it can also be a trigger for dabbling in neuroenhancement drugs – substances that help tired students to improve cognitive performance, boost energy and improve their focus. But at what cost?

Exam time is danger zone

A new study from the universities of Zurich and Basel found that about 13.8 percent of students had used neuroenhancement drugs at least once during college to better their academic performances. The most widely used substance was alcohol, but it was closely followed by methylphenidate (Ritalin, Daytrana), sedatives, cannabis, beta-blockers and amphetamines.

About 94 percent of students in the study had already heard of neuroenhancement drugs, and most who had actually used them did so during the exam preparation period – only consuming them during periods of high stress.

The majority of students took "soft enhancers," like caffeinated substances or non-prescription supplements, but the number of students taking these substances still raises a red flag, said Michael Schaub, lead study author and head of the Swiss Research Institute for Public Health and Addiction.

"The purported frequency of neuroenhancement at Swiss universities needs to be put into perspective as we asked about psychoactive and calmative substances," Schaub said in a press release.

More stress, more drugs

Not surprisingly, students who had more commitments – like graduate students with jobs – consumed neuroenhancement drugs more frequently. And, at least in Swiss students, the type of degree being pursued seemed to correspond with different rates of drug use. Students studying architecture, journalism, chemistry or econimics, for example, had higher rates of use than students studying mathematics or sports.

A bright spot of the study was that about half the students said they would never take these substances again, but more research on the issue would still be helpful in developing appropriate prevention and intervention strategies, said Schaub.

"The development of neuroenhancement at Swiss universities should be monitored as students constitute a high-risk group that is exposed to increased stress and performance pressure during their degrees," he concluded.

Source: University of Zurich

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