Smart Drugs Could Do Your Grades More Harm Than Good, New Study Reveals

A new study from the University of Cambridge has revealed the truth about taking study drugs.

Smart or study drugs are not a new concept, with many students opting to take unprescribed medication as a way to boost their productivity and help them to concentrate when it comes to exam season.

The “study drugs” in question are typically meds that are prescribed for ADHD such as Ritalin in the UK. However, for students without ADHD, it’s all too easy to get their hands on these meds without a prescription. This leads to many students taking ADHD medication under the belief that it will boost their productivity and enhance their focus while they have major exams or dissertation deadlines.

Of course, taking study drugs if they’re not meds that have been prescribed to you has never been encouraged and students have been warned against this for years, but it hasn’t stopped the trend. With the use of study drugs regularly shown on American TV programmes as something that’s pretty common among college kids, it’s no wonder that it’s translated over to the UK.

However, this new research from the University of Cambridge has shown that taking ADHD drugs when you’re not supposed to be taking them can actually have a negative impact on your focus and productivity––the opposite effect that those who take them are aiming for.

How does ADHD medication impact those without ADHD?

The researchers carried out trials with 40 participants over a few weeks, where they each took one of three popular smart drugs or a placebo. The participants were then assessed on how they performed in a test designed to model the complex decision-making or problem-solving that we have to do daily. This included being given a virtual knapsack with a set capacity and a variety of items with different weights and values that needed to be allocated to the bag.

The participants saw slight decreases in accuracy and efficiency and large increases in time and effort compared to when they were not taking the drugs. Those who had taken methylphenidate which is often used to treat ADHD in children and is a common study drug, took around 50% longer on average to complete the tasks compared to when they took the placebo drug.

When the participants had taken the placebo they typically performed at a higher level compared to when they’d taken the actual drug, with the top 25% after the placebo test landing in the bottom 25% when they’d taken methylphenidate.

What does the research mean for students?

Although many students who take study drugs may report feeling more alert and focused, there’s also a big chance that the drugs could also be negatively impacting their productivity levels too.

When taking any drug or substance, it can often have a placebo effect where many believe that they are feeling the impact of the drug and therefore subconsciously change their behaviours because of it. So, it could be the case that for many students who rely on taking study drugs, it’s not actually having a huge impact on their performance like they may believe and is in fact having the opposite effect.

However, while this shows that you definitely shouldn’t be taking ADHD meds unless they’ve been prescribed to you there’s still more research that needs to be done on a larger scale to confirm these results.

Professor Peter Bossaerts, Leverhulme International Professor of Neuroeconomics at the University of Cambridge, said:

“Our results suggest that these drugs don’t actually make you ‘smarter’. Because of the dopamine the drugs induce, we expected to see increased motivation, and they do motivate one to try harder. However, we discovered that this exertion caused more erratic thinking—in ways that we could make precise because the knapsack task had been widely studied in computer science. Performance did not generally increase, so questions remain about how the drugs are affecting people’s minds and their decision making.”

Since the popularity of TikTok educating more and more people on ADHD and its symptoms, many have inaccurately self-diagnosed themselves which may lead to students taking medication that isn’t needed under the belief that it could help.

If you do think that you might have ADHD it’s always best to push for a diagnosis from a medical professional who can help you get the correct medication. However, for students who rely on study drugs knowing that they don’t have ADHD this new research could be what helps the trend to slow down, knowing that study drugs could actually make you even less productive than you were without the meds.

You can read more about the full research from the University of Cambridge here.