6 July, 2016
The use of drugs to enhance academic performance goes by a number of names – “academic doping”, “cosmetic neurology”, “neuroenhancement”.
A recent survey showed that Australian university students are using substances to enhance their study at a higher rate than students in the US and Germany. And media articles often describe academic doping as emerging, increasing, widespread and even rife.
Comparing apples, oranges and a few pears
Surveys about neuroenhancement can vary widely in their estimates on the number of students taking drugs to help them study. Prevalence studies can be challenging to compare due to differences in the sample being surveyed, as well as regulatory and cultural differences.
But other factors can have a huge effect on the headline rate that is reported. There is little consensus on the definition of “neuroenhancement” from survey to survey. There are also differences in the exact substances being asked about.
Where one survey might ask about the non-medical use of Ritalin for study purposes, others will ask about any non-medical use of any prescription stimulant; or any non-medical drug use for study involving the use of illicit stimulants; or any stimulant use for study including caffeine.
Two major blind spots are recurrent in the reporting of prevalence data on neuroenhancement. The first occurs because many surveys (like the recent Australian survey mentioned above) ask students about “lifetime use” of drugs. This is not really a problem in itself as lifetime usage rates can be useful information. However, lifetime figures are inevitably higher than past year or past month usage. This means that reports about the prevalence of neuroenhancement should be careful not to imply that this is the number of students who are currently involved in academic doping.
A measure of lifetime use also doesn’t give time points that can be used to plot a trend, meaning that there’s little evidence to support claims in that academic doping is on the rise. There are no longitudinal studies yet on neuroenhancement, but this would be the best way to effectively show trends in use over time.
A second blind spot occurs when “academic doping” is conflated with the non-medical use of prescription drugs for other purposes like recreation or self-treatment. When motives are undifferentiated, survey results can be misinterpreted and the prevalence of neuroenhancement among students can be inflated.
Helpful information or blind enthusiasm?
The use of “study drugs” is a vital, but challenging, subject to discuss. Often, media reports reveal details such as where to get the drugs, how much you should take and how much it will cost to obtain drugs for non-medical purposes.
Such reports arguably straddle the line between giving information and potentially motivating experimentation (contrary to the Australian Press Council guidelines).
Much of the concern about encouraging experimentation is linked to the safety of using various substances as study drugs. Prescription stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall can have acute effects such as cardiac arrhythmia, increased anxiety or symptoms of depression. There is also a risk of dependence if used over a longer period.
It is argued before that exaggerating the prevalence of “academic doping” could also have unwanted consequences. If students are under the impression that many of their peers are using prescription stimulants to get higher grades, they may feel pressured to try it for themselves in order to keep up.
Students may also get the impression that this practice is normal, and must be effective. Interestingly, there is evidence that students who have used prescription stimulants for non-medical reasons are likely to use other illicit drugs at higher rates. They also tend to overestimate how many of their peers are using “smart drugs”.
Currently there is mixed data about whether stimulants offer any cognitive improvements for healthy people in tightly controlled laboratory tests – and this is a far cry from suggesting there are advantages when studying or completing academic assessments in the real world.