With students gearing up for exams in just a few months’ time, many are turning to so-called smart drugs to enhance their memory and cognitive performance. Modafinil is one such drug and is well- known by many students at top universities who use it to help them get through the challenging exam period.

But Modafinil is actually a prescription-only medicine prescribed for sleep disorders including narcolepsy, and the impact of using it long-term to improve cognitive ability is not known, so students could be putting their health at risk.

UK educational institutions are now debating what to do about this issue, which is on the increase. Whereas before students were taking drugs to get high, now it seems they are turning to prescription medicines to improve their work. The question is – is it tantamount to cheating?

Many universities have policies in place to tackle illegal drug use but Modafinil is a medicine so the issue becomes more complex. Particularly as students are either buying it from an online pharmacy or feigning symptoms to get a prescription.

Support and education programmes to advise students about these smart drugs are being set up within universities to help them understand the risks, but also to offer them alternative help when facing the struggle of exam season.

Pressures to succeed as well as the financial issues associated with university fees, can lead students to turn to smart drugs to improve their memory, concentration, and mental stamina to enhance their exam performance and make sure they succeed.

Short-term it seems that one of the reasons Modafinil is so popular is that it does actually work. Studies have shown it does indeed improve cognitive function so it really is a smart drug. And it also comes with minimal side effects when used short-term which is another benefit for students. It’s the long-term impact which isn’t understood.

However, this doesn’t seem to be deterring the students from taking it as a recent survey showed around 15% of students at Oxford University had taken Modafinil without a prescription for it, to improve their academic performance.

And a wider survey across Europe showed that between 10% and 15% of students had tried to enhance their performance by taking some kind of drugs or alcohol at least once, when they were faced with exams or dissertations to write.

So what is Modafinil and what does it actually do?

Modafinil is prescribed by health professionals for adults who suffer from narcolepsy to help them stay awake because it works as a wakefulness-promoting agent on the central nervous system.

Narcolepsy is a neurological condition which causes excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden, inappropriate sleep attacks during the day. Liam from millenio.co.uk said “Modafinil can be great if you just want to sit and get some repetitive or dry work done, as long as you’re prepared to go for a few hours.”

Common symptoms of narcolepsy include:

  • Feeling sleepy during the day
  • Falling asleep suddenly during the day
  • Sleep paralysis (temporarily being unable to move when you first wake up)

There are some circumstances where Modafinil cannot be prescribed, including to patients who suffer from an irregular heartbeat, uncontrolled blood pressure problems, or are allergic to any of the ingredients, so students taking it without a prescription need to be aware of the potential dangers.

Modafinil is also known to worsen any of these conditions, so shouldn’t be taken by anyone suffering from depression, psychosis, mania, bipolar disorder or low moods. Again, if students are feeling the pressure and perhaps suffering from anxiety, depression or feeling low as a result, taking Modafinil could have negative consequences.

It also interferes with the way hormonal contraceptives work so alternative birth control methods would be required while using it and for two months after stopping Modafinil. Anyone using it should always follow the dosage guidelines and never take more than the prescribed dose.

Are there any side effects from taking Modafinil?

Potentially, any medication can cause side effects but different people will react differently. An allergy to Modafinil could result in swelling of the face, mouth or throat, itchiness, rash or problems breathing – anyone experiencing any of these symptoms should seek medical help.

Some of the more common side effects of Modafinil include headaches, dizziness, tiredness and insomnia but the patient information leaflet contains full details of all side effects and potential conflicts with other medications.

There is no doubt that universities and colleges will continue to debate the issue, with some even considering drug tests before exams to level the playing field for all students. Anyone who uses Modafinil should make themselves fully aware of all the risks, side effects and contra-indications before use.