Ten per cent of Cambridge students have admitted to taking medication without prescription to help them work.

A Varsity survey, completed by 1,000 students, has revealed that one in ten Cambridge students has taken drugs such as Modafinil, Ritalin and Adderall.

Meanwhile one third of respondents admitted that, given the opportunity, they would take concentration-enhancing medication.

Modafinil has been the focus of media attention, including a BBC documentary, in recent months, as off-prescription use of the drug is growing in popularity.

The possession of prescription-only medication without a prescription is “a serious criminal offence” according to the Home Office. It is, however, easy to obtain prescription-only drugs, like Modafinil, via online pharmacies based outside the UK.

Varsity spoke to five Cambridge students who have recently tried Modafinil for the first time. All of the five reported increased alertness on the day of taking the drug, with four of the five stating that their ability to concentrate on work improved.

Two students reported that they also felt more motivated. Furthermore, none of the five students trying the drug reported detrimental side effects.

One third-year Sidney student, who has taken a 100mg Modafinil tablet every day for a number of weeks, did report a feeling of “despondency” in the evenings. “Although Modafinil has undoubtedly aided my concentration, after a Modafinil-fuelled library day I find it very hard to engage with people socially,” she said.

The stimulant, prescribed by doctors to treat patients with chronic sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, has a broad non-medical use. Shift-workers, the military, pilots and nurses have been prescribed the drug to prevent tiredness and enhance alertness.

Students can obtain generic versions of the drug from the Internet, which are sold under brand names Modapro and Modalert. The drug is officially manufactured under the brand names Provigil and Alertec.

Under both the generic and brand names, the content of the drug should be the same: Modafinil. Generic versions of the drug are not subject to regulations, however, and concerns have been raised about their purity.

On one online pharmacy, 30 pills, manufactured by Cephalon under the brand name Provigil, are sold for £17 with an additional £10 shipping charge.

The long-term risks of taking Modafinil are not fully known, since doctors are unsure of exactly how it acts on the brain. However, it reportedly lacks the agitation, irritability, nausea and comedown associated with amphetamines such as Ritalin.

William Shanahan, Consultant Psychiatrist and Medical Director of the Capio Nightingale Hospital in London, told Varsity that “there is a risk of addiction” that comes with taking Modafinil.

Lisa Halpern, a Senior Counsellor with the University Counselling Service, said that no students or colleagues have approached her with questions about the use of Modafinil. Regarding the safety of taking the drug, she commented: “Drugs like Modafinil are relatively new, so we cannot, as of yet, judge the long term risks.”

She added: “Modafinil is not listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act, hence doctors can prescribe it widely to patients without medical sleep conditions, whose jobs require they stay awake and alert for prolonged periods. The drug is, however, a banned substance in sport. It was added to the list of prohibited substances in 2004, and a number of high profile athletes, including Dwain Chambers, have since tested positive for Modafinil use.

“It would seem that for a number of students, however, risks to their bank account and potential long term health risks are of little concern when it comes to getting a possible extra edge in Tripos,” she concluded.

Ant Bagshaw, CUSU Education Officer and member of the Board of Examinations, said, “I am surprised that so many people have taken such drugs. The use of concentration-enhancing drugs is not really something I’ve come across before.”

When asked what he thought about the use of drugs like Modafinil in exams, Bagshaw responded: “In principle, I am against it. I think students should do everything possible to perform as well as they can in exams, but this should be limited to operating within legal means.” Were the possession of Modafinil without a prescription legal, however, Bagshaw admits that he would reserve judgement until it could be proven that taking the drug would put a student at an unfair advantage.

“There is a rule in the University statutes relating to unfair means. Taking notes into an exam, getting someone to take the exam for you and plagiarism are all disallowed under this rule,” he said.

The “biggest problem” Bagshaw finds with applying the same rule to taking a drug like Modafinil is a practical one: “It’s not clear what sort of drug testing process would have to be put in place. Can you imagine the proctors walking around exam halls with urine samples?”

The University has not commented on whether taking concentration enhancing medication could be considered a form of cheating. In response to the results of the Varsity survey, Rob Wallach, the Secretary of the Senior Tutor’s Committee, offered the following comment:

“The use of prescription drugs without the approval of a qualified medical practitioner is not to be recommended under any circumstance as unforeseen side effects can be serious. Hence we would advise any student to take appropriate medical advice before considering taking any prescription drugs, including those such as Modafinil, Ritalin, or Adderall.

“More generally, we would encourage students to talk to their supervisors, Tutor, Director of Studies or Senior Tutor if they’re having difficulties with their studies for any reason. By sharing any problems, they together should be able to develop improved academic good practice and appropriate confidence. These should do away with any perceived need for performance enhancers of any type other than those developed through expertise and academic study.”

The Varsity survey did not show dramatic differences in the use of stimulants between students in different subjects. Results did, however, show that students taking essay-based subjects were marginally more likely to take the medication. 16 per cent of respondents studying Philosophy admitted to having taken either one of Modafinil, Ritalin or Adderall, as did 15 per cent of SPS respondents and 14 per cent of lawyers responding. Meanwhile, only five per cent of the NatScis who took the survey, and four per cent of the engineers, had taken a prescription stimulant.

Disparities between uses of the drugs in different Colleges were starker. Christ’s, Corpus Christi, Homerton and Peterhouse all had 18 per cent of their respondents admit to having taken Modafinil, Ritalin or Adderall. Only three per cent of King’s students, and four per cent of Magdalene students who took the survey admitted to taking the drugs.

The way in which the drug is commonly distributed amongst students may explain the inter-College disparities. A third-year Corpus student told Varsity: “One person will order Modafinil in bulk from the internet, and will sell it on to their friends and acquaintances. Many people are unhappy to give over their bank details to a potentially dodgy website, and would rather buy from another student.”

By Natasha Lennard