Study drugs - a parent's guide

Study drugs – a parent’s guide

Study drugs have moved far beyond the old standby of caffeine, through coffee or Pro-Plus. Increasing pressure around academic success and pharmaceutical advances, along with lax regulation, mean that even GCSE students are turning to study drugs.

Nor is the problem confined to exam times. Some students, especially where there is a focus on coursework and consistent achievement, are taking them throughout the academic year, worried that their grades will suffer if they stop.

Broadly study drugs fall into two groups

  • Prescription drugs used ‘off-licence’, and normally without any prescription at all
  • Nootropics, so called ‘cognitive enhancers’, which are illegal

Prescription drugs

Although the following drugs are meant to be available on prescription only it doesn’t take a great amount of internet searching to find them for sale. This means that the dosage and frequency are a best guess until they can be based on experience. It also means that the drugs cannot be guaranteed as genuine or to contain the active ingredient.

Narcolepsy medication such as Provigil and Nuvigil are the most popular choice of study drug. They tackle narcolepsy through raisng dopamine levels, and increasing feelings of alertness and wellbeing – effects that users report as enhancing their study.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) medication, such as Ritalin, Intuniv, and Strattera, are the other commonly misused drugs. As well as increased focus and concentration these can also bring feelings of euphoria, and come with the risk dependency or addiction. This is compounded in the case of Adderall, an American ADHD treatment that isn’t licensed for use at all in the UK, and so is classed as an illegal drug.

Parkinson’s treatments, such as Sinemet, Mirapexin, and Tamsar, are seen less often, but are also open to misuse as study drugs. A particular antihistamine for hives and hayfever, Telfast, is also sometimes used for its alleged cognition enhancing effects.


Nootropics encompass what were previously known as ‘legal highs’ before the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act. Consequently they are all illegal, no matter what their stated effect or use.

The most common nootropic is called Noopept. At the time of writing it’s fairly easily available online, and carries all of the risks of the ‘prescription’ drugs (varying strength and content, lack of testing or advice on use, lack of knowledge about long-term side effects) without their agreed standards and safeguards.

I’d also include theanine in this group. Found naturally in green tea theanine increases serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. Although legal in Japan as a food additive its use is banned within the EU.

What to look for

What all study drugs have in common though are concerns about their use, whether misused ‘off-licence’, without prescription, or just straightforwardly illegal. Our brains don’t stop forming until we reach the age of 24, and the effect of these drugs on such plastic brains isn’t fully known or understood.

Study drugs are never the answer to feelings of academic pressure. If you’re concerned about your child using them be on the look out for trouble sleeping, and an increased amount of time awake. They may also show increased anxiety and erratic behaviour, as well as becoming more secretive or evasive.


If you found this blog post about study drugs useful then why not sign up for my monthly newsletter here with three stories every month on the quirky side of psychology and relationships