A Varsity investigation has found that some Cambridge students are using prescription-only drugs in the hope that it will enable them to work more efficiently, while stimulant use in the form of caffeine pills and energy drinks is widespread. Two Cambridge professors have also claimed to have been offered the “brain-boosting” drug Ritalin by colleagues during international conferences.

In a Varsity survey, many students said they occasionally used caffeine pills such as Pro Plus or beverages marketed as “energy drinks”, which combine caffeine with other ingredients such as extracts from the high-caffeine guarana plant, taurine and other chemicals.

92 per cent had tried Red Bull, Relentless, or another brand of energy drink and 38 per cent said they bought such a drink two or more times a week. This figure increases to 48 per cent in exam term, and 46 per cent of second or third year students had used Pro Plus or a different caffeine tablet during exam term.

“I drank a lot of Relentless during exam term last year,” said Laura Cremer, a second year MML student from Selwyn. “It was really useful for working into the night. We’d have a can of Relentless at about seven thirty and take a half an hour break to drink it. Then we’d work without any problems until maybe two in the morning.”

Another Selwyn student said taking caffeine tablets had improved her concentration during the early stages of her revision last year. “It was at the stage of my revision where I wasn’t really motivated, so I needed something to make me focus. By the time it got to exams I was scared enough to work already. If you’re busy and going short on sleep, it’s really much easier to focus when you’ve got something like Red Bull or Pro Plus. If I took a lot, and drank coffee as well, I’d get a bit shaky. But I didn’t have any major side effects.”

38% of students buy energy drinks twice a week or more

The majority of student users appear to be consuming these substances in moderation, but half of those who have tried Pro Plus or a different caffeine tablet admitted they had exceeded the recommended dose at some point.

Few students seemed concerned about the possible side effects of excessive consumption of caffeine supplements and caffeine-based energy drinks. “The problem with caffeine is that the effects can vary, so it is difficult to say what is a safe level. High levels of caffeine can be dangerous for people with high blood pressure or anxiety disorders,” said Lyndel Costain, a dietician. While some people experience no side effects from caffeine supplements, others suffer insomnia, nervousness and headaches.

There have been frequent allegations of health risks associated with certain brands of energy drink. France banned Red Bull in 2000 after an 18 year old Irish athlete, Ross Cooney, died after playing a basketball game soon after consuming four cans of the drink. Britain investigated the drink, but has only issued a warning against its consumption by pregnant women.
Some research also suggests that people who regularly consume energy drinks are more likely to develop diabetes mellitus. “There is plenty of research on the effects of caffeine, but it’s impossible to really know the effects of caffeine pills such as Pro Plus because they put other ingredients with them,” said Trevor Robbins, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Cambridge University. “The same goes for energy drinks.”

Varsity also spoke to one student who claimed to have worked after taking the recreational Class A drug ecstasy. “I’d been out, but I had an essay due in the next morning and I knew I had to get it done whether I was high or not,” he said. “I sat down to do it at about 2am, and I’d done it within 45 minutes – it would usually take me at least three hours to churn out that kind of work. I just worked like a machine. I was completely focused – I had this massive drive to work and felt no desire to procrastinate. I don’t think I’d ever take it specifically to work, but if I wanted to go out and take ecstasy and hadn’t finished my work yet, I wouldn’t worry.”

46% of students use caffeine pills during exam term

Students are becoming increasingly aware of trends among American university students to use prescription-only drugs, designed to treat mental or neurological disorders, to increase productivity levels. A study by the University of New Hampshire last year found 16.2 per cent of American students had used Ritalin, a drug prescribed to patients with Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Of these 15.5 per cent reported using it at least two or three times a week. Modafinil, a narcolepsy drug, and Adderall, used to treat both narcolepsy and ADHD, are also popular among healthy American students attempting to improve alertness and concentration.

“Our research has confirmed that Ritalin and modafinil drugs can improve cognition amongst healthy individuals,” said Professor Robbins. Studies by Robbins and his colleagues in 1997 found Ritalin had significant effects on healthy volunteers’ spatial memory and ability to plan. “It is very good for improving selective attention – in other words, improving concentration – especially in the sleep deprived,” said Robbins. But it did not have an impact on verbal fluency, suggesting students taking the drug in the hope that it will improve their essays might not see a marked improvement in their work.

38% of students would buy Ritalin if it were sold in pharmacies

In a different study, researchers found volunteers who took modafinil performed better than those who took a placebo in tasks that tested memory of numerical sequences and visual patterns. Participants also said they felt more alert and attentive. “Volunteers that took modafinil also worked with greater accuracy, because the drug slowed the time before initial response. This reduction in impulsiveness meant people had more time to consider their response,” said Robbins.

Of the eight students we spoke to who have experimented with these drugs, the majority were American students on exchange programmes. One exchange student, who admitted to using Adderall three or four times when studying, said he knew many fellow students who used the drug almost daily. “Basically what it did was make me focus really intently on whatever I was doing,” he said. “When I was studying for an exam, I was recopying all of my notes and was able to sit and do this for nine hours straight without thinking about it.”

The student suggested use of the drug is more widespread at American universities because ADHD is diagnosed more frequently in the USA. “Since more kids are diagnosed, more people have access to their prescriptions. Everyone I know knows someone with a prescription and gets it off of them, or even goes into the university medical centre to “test for ADD” to get themselves a prescription. It is real easy to get a hold of, so that makes it prevalent.”

But the drug does not seem to improve concentration in all cases. One student from Clare College, who obtained Ritalin through a friend with ADHD, told Varsity: “I noticed no effect at all. I took it because my friend guaranteed that it would make me really focused, but I felt just as unmotivated as ever.” She added, “Most people I know who’ve tried it have got it through someone with ADHD or an American friend. It’s very easy to get scammed if you buy it on the internet.”

Barbara Sohakian, Professor of Neuropsychology at Cambridge, claimed that use of such drugs is also becoming more widespread in academic circles. “I have been offered modafinil on several occasions when I’ve been at conferences, without asking for it,” she said. Professor Robbins stated that he has had similar experiences.

A report published by the British Medical Association last week has called for public discussion on ethics of brain boosting drugs. There is something startling and potentially worrying about interventions designed to alter the healthy brain which controls such facets of personality, individuality and our sense of self,” it argued. The authors also emphasized that the long-term effects of taking such drugs are as yet unknown, and warned that “the effects of taking such drugs over a long period of time, particularly the effect on the developing brain, are still being assessed”.

Cambridge University has condemned the use of such drugs by students. “The University does not approve of any non-medicinal drug taking,” said Rob Wallach, Secretary to the Senior Tutors’ committee. “Colleges would discourage this for any students who felt it necessary to take performance enhancing stimulants to help with their studies and/or examinations, and would wish to support them in other ways.”

Professor Robbins, however, has argued that there is no intrinsic ethical difference between taking drugs such as Ritalin or Adderall, and drinking coffee or an energy drink to stay alert. “It’s a hard line to draw ethically,” he told Varsity. “If people were to use them in an exam, that would obviously be wrong. But it’s hard to see why we shouldn’t be taking them in general situations. I don’t believe there’s a strong line between taking Ritalin or modafinil and drinking coffee.”

He went on to suggest that Britain should prepare for the use of “cognitive enhancers” to become much more widespread, particularly as restricting access to these drugs would be difficult.

“It’s hard to legislate against, except in a competitive situation where there would be inequalities of access – in exam situations, for example. This is currently being considered by a report by the Academy of Medical Sciences, on which I serve.” The report will be published in February 2008.

One student has suggested such drugs were unlikely to ever be used by more than a small minority of Cambridge students. “There’s this whole culture of respect in Cambridge for people who are naturally gifted,” he said. “I think most students here would feel a bit like they’re cheating themselves if they took Ritalin or Modafinil. It would be a sign that they can’t get by on natural talent like the rest of them.”

But Varsity’s poll found that although only six per cent of Cambridge students had contemplated buying Ritalin, Adderall or a similar “cognitive enhancer” on the internet, 38 per cent said they would buy them if they became freely available for sale in the UK.
Katy Lee


First year Physical NatSci

I started using Pro Plus regularly at the beginning of this term. I’m taking about six a day at the moment, which is way more than anyone else I know – I certainly don’t consider myself a typical Cambridge case, but I have a lot of friends who use it quite a lot.

The problem with studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge is that you have to be alert 24/7. You’ve got lectures, practicals and lab supervisions all day – 31 hours of contact time in total. And when you get home in the evening you’ve got to carry on working. The workload is a massive increase on what I was used to at school.

I’m used to going out a lot and I was totally not willing to sacrifice my social life when I came to Cambridge, so I just decided to sleep less and take something to help me feel more awake. Ultimately it’s a lifestyle decision – I could quite easily devote the hours I spend on going out to sleeping, but I can’t really see any alternative if I’m not prepared to do that.

I’m not really concerned about whether or not I’m going over the recommended dose. If I’m feeling sleepy and I’ve got more than one supervision that day, I’ll take a few in the morning. I’ll also drink three or four cups of coffee every day, and I occasionally used powdered guarana extract – it’s a natural source of caffeine that you can buy from health food shops.
I’m getting about six hours of sleep each night at the moment. If I wasn’t so competitive things would be a bit easier, but I like being able to contribute in supervisions and you need to be really alert because the course requires constant active thought.

A lot of the time I feel pretty frazzled – too tired to sleep but not awake enough to work – but for the first few hours after I’ve taken a large caffeine dose I feel alert and able to work well. I don’t think I could get by without extra caffeine at the moment. I’ll catch up on sleep once term’s finished. I’m just doing my best to stay on top of things while I’m still here.


Music graduate

I have tried Ritalin a couple of times. I heard about people using it in America, and I was given some by an American friend who was going to throw them away. Each time I tried Ritalin it was for composing through the night for a deadline the next morning.

I tried it because I was having problems sitting down and doing the work, often getting easily distracted before important deadlines. I needed something to help me concentrate. I only had one or two pills each time, not knowing much about recommended dosage. The first time I did notice a beneficial effect, and wrote a substantial amount. I was able to concentrate a little better, moving more quickly on to the next bar of music, rather than focusing on the previous, tinkering with it, wondering how it could be improved and reflecting upon the piece as a whole.

Whether or not this altered process reflected a more efficient style of working, or merely impeded my own critical faculties, producing more work of a lower quality, I cannot say. The music I wrote was not particularly good or bad, but it was adequate for the next day’s supervision.

The second time I tried it, a few months later, I noticed no positive effect at all. I was more tired that night anyway, and didn’t stick with it for long - I ended up going to bed not having done much. This second experience made me re-assess the first; perhaps it hadn’t had that much effect after all. I was the kind of student who worked in short, concentrated bursts followed by long periods of inactivity anyway, so staying up all night to produce two weeks’ work, as I had done the first time, was not that out of the ordinary.

It is certainly possible that the beneficial effect I noticed was more placebo than anything else. Anyway, having used up what I had, I decided not to get any more, and trusted in the old staples of coffee and cigarettes during exam term.