Jagged little pills

April 4, 2013

Recent research in Germany reveals that one in five students “takes something” to improve academic performance. The substances can range from fairly innocuous caffeine tablets to Ritalin, amphetamines, even cocaine. Critics here are extremely concerned about what they refer to as “pharma- turbo” or “brain doping”.

Students’ motives for all this pill-popping range from staying alert and concentrating better to overcoming nerves, tension and anxiety (many brain dopers reveal neurotic symptoms). However, as an article in the newspaper Die Welt points out, the notion of pills “that make you clever” is just wishful thinking.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Mainz’s Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, evaluated 2,600 questionnaire responses from students in various faculties at the institution. Sports science students are the biggest brain dopers, the research reveals, with those studying language and education the least likely to take pills.

Mathematicians, physics and computer science students evidently prefer prescription drugs to illegal ones, the study shows, and there are no great differences between the sexes.

It is important to note that earlier research in this area, released about a year ago, revealed far less dramatic results: it found that only about one in 20 students used prescription medicines to enhance performance, and most did so only occasionally.

On the other hand, the latest study employed the “randomised response technique”, which ensures the complete anonymity of those surveyed. This certainly increased students’ willingness to participate and probably the reliability of the results as well.

Claus Normann, managing medical director of the department of psychiatry at the University of Freiburg, has confirmed the validity of the study, adding that students are “a high-risk population” in terms of taking performance-enhancing drugs: the pressure to succeed is great, and the willingness to use a variety of substances appears to be widespread.

What do the students themselves think? The online comments on the research are quite revealing. Some argue that the study is sensationalist, because caffeine does not really count as “pharma-turbo” and should be omitted. In this vein, one cynic remarks that “today, the headline is ‘turbo-drug caffeine’ and tomorrow it will be ‘every seventh coffee drinker is a potential heroin addict’”.

Another student laments that with funding being cut and expectations rising simultaneously (including the need to write academic work in English), “how else can one cope?”

“What’s the problem?” adds one businessman. “I have often taken stay-awake pills during a big project, just like other colleagues. We’re adults. In the military, it’s an everyday thing.” To support his argument, he refers to military pilots’ state-sanctioned use of the amphetamine speed.

But the best comment has to be: “Where can I get all this cool stuff legally?”

One can understand recourse to such substances, but medical experts stress that the drugs tend to help people work longer rather than better. Given this fact and the dangers of addiction, combined with the lack of data on the long-term effect of brain doping, the medical view is that it makes more sense for students to start work earlier, get enough sleep and generally live more healthily.

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