Singapore's undergraduates and secondary students are using "smart drugs" to enhance their cognitive abilities to help with last-minute cramming.

Students as young as 16 are buying and taking drugs such as modafinil to obtain better results in exams. The drugs are also easily accessible – with some students sharing them amongst their peers. It is also possible to buy the drugs on online platforms such as Carousell and messaging services like Telegram, as well.

Some sellers even offer free samples, delivery services and "back-to-school" promotions. A blister pack of 10 pills may cost between SGD15 and SGD35, depending on the potency.

Such drugs are usually consumed to treat disorders such as excessive daytime sleepiness or conditions like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They have been claimed to boost concentration, decision-making and memory power in healthy individuals.

"Smart drugs" usage among students on the rise

One website selling modafinil, targets Singapore students "who are mercilessly subjected to an intense education curriculum", adding that students can "study more in less time" with the drug. The seller said his youngest buyer is in Secondary 4.

Pills containing modafinil are marketed under various names – with each pill costing about SGD1.50 – keeping a person awake for several hours.

Other cognitive enhancers include methylphenidate, marketed under formulations such as Ritalin, which is usually used to treat those with ADHD and narcolepsy.

Experts say that more students are misusing these "smart drugs". Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist in private practice, said more students who do not have actual clinical conditions are approaching doctors for the drugs. He warned that it can be dangerous to buy these drugs off the streets or over the Internet, as well as use them without supervision.

Drugs not proven to be void of side effects

Singapore is not alone. In the US, a number of companies now market these drugs, collectively known as "nootropics" as nutritional supplements as they contain herbal remedies, amino acids, citicoline, piracetam ̶ approved for therapeutic use in dozens of countries for adults and the elderly.

Because they are sold as nutritional supplements and natural products that do not make health claims, they avoid close government scrutiny.

"Who doesn't want to maximise their cognitive ability? Who doesn't want to maximise their muscle mass?" asks Murali Doraiswamy, who has led several trials of cognitive enhancers at Duke University Health System, and has been an adviser to pharmaceutical and supplement manufacturers as well as the US Food and Drug Administration.

Some studies have shown that these cognitive enhancers can produce mental gains in normal people, but not without side effects such as heart problems, severe rashes, headaches, irritability, difficulty in breathing and insomnia.

Psychologist Daniel Koh from Insights Mind Centre said the lack of rest may slow down reaction time, affect moods and the immune system, or result in a breakdown. "The body and mind cannot be constantly stimulated and not allowed to relax," he said.

Students accumulated and reserved supply to take during exams and tests

Dr Thomas Lee of The Resilienz Clinic has even encountered some students over the years who admitted storing up methylphenidate for exams. Methylphenidate is listed as a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

"They pretended that they were taking the medication daily but secretly accumulated the supply to take during exams and tests. Sometimes, they shared them with or supplied them to their friends," he added.

The Health Sciences Authority (HSA) and the Central Narcotics Bureau have said that medications containing methylphenidate has to be registered with the HSA and can only be prescribed by a registered medical practitioner.

"Prior approval from HSA is required for each import of therapeutic products that contain controlled drugs," they added.

They also warned that anyone who imported or supplied, without prior approval, a health product containing methylphenidate, may be jailed for up to two years and/or fined up to SGD50,000.

Modafinil on the other hand, while not a controlled substance, is not registered for use as a therapeutic product in Singapore, the HSA said. If convicted of unauthorised sales, a person can be fined up to SGD50,000 and/or jailed up to two years.

Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, urged students to refrain from resorting to these drugs and instead have enough sleep, healthy food, lots of physical exercise and adopting good study skills. MIMS

Read more:
Can 'smart drugs' really boost intelligence without side effects?
The dangers of prescription drugs made available without prescription
Increasing IQ: how cognitive training & smart drugs can boost intelligence