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Thursday 23rd October 2014, 01:35 BST | Cambridge,UK

Ritalin and Red Bull: a recipe for success?

‘We’re not talking science fiction here. These technologies could influence our ability to learn or perform tasks’

A new report calls for greater vigilance to combat the ongoing problem of university students using performance-enhancing drugs. The findings were published yesterday by academics from the Academy of Medical Sciences, British Academy, Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Society, in a report led by
Professor Genevra Richardson, from King’s College London. The data suggested that students are using medicines marketed as ‘cognitive enhancement pharmaceuticals’ in an effort to improve their grades and to maintain energy levels as a regular occurrence.

Professor Richardson spoke of the possibility that performance-enhancing products could benefit society, as she explained that: “We’re not talking science fiction here. These technologies could influence our ability to learn or perform tasks, they could influence our motivation, they could enable us to work in more extreme conditions, or they could facilitate our return to work after illness or disability.”

However, she went on to clarify that although new technology could provide an important boost for productivity in working environments and in old age, it should be used and monitored carefully. She also mentioned that drug use also has significant policy implications that need to be considered by governments and trade unions, such as the possibility of employees co-ercing each other into taking the drugs, or that workers who would be able to afford such products might have an advantage over colleagues. Prescription medicines are currently used by university students in an attempt to improve their memory skills and to maximise the time spent revising. Drugs such as Modafinil are commonly used to treat sleep disorders such as narcolepsy.

Studies have found that in students who regularly use Modafinil and Ritalin may have a significant advantage over their drug-free peers. A 2008 report by the Academy of Medical Sciences suggested that an improvement in memory of just 10 % could make a difference the class of degree awarded.

A study of Cambridge students conducted by Varsity the following year showed that at least 100 students, almost 10 percent of those questioned, had resorted to similar methods to help with concentration. A further 30 % of those interviewed admitted that they would use Ritalin or Adderall to improve their focus during stressful periods, such as in the run-up to exams.

Since this information about university drug use has come to light, questions have been raised about whether the consumption of other energy-boosting products, such as energy drinks and caffeine tablets, should also be taken into account.Dr. Andrew Sandberg, an Oxford philosophy lecturer, explains that there are dangers involved in using Pro Plus tablets and energy drinks like Red Bull. He mentions that any side effects are “dose dependent, so the more you take, the greater your risk of being affected and seriously harmed.”

Professor Barbara Sahakian, a neuroscientist who teaches at Cambridge’s Psychiatry Department, added that drug use is one of the issues that “students frequently bring up, as they feel that it is cheating or that it is unfair to them.” She was in agreement with colleagues that a healthy diet and regular exercise proves to be a more effective way of preparing for exams or for coping during difficult periods of term, rather than relying on the extremely risky strategy of taking prescription drugs as a means of improving memory and concentration.

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