Modafinil: the ‘smart drug’ on the rise in Ireland

Byline: Dave Stapleton

Smart drugs are not a new concept, there’s been national media coverage of their unprescribed usage in Ireland since 2013, and you can find a lot of information online about their effects. The general consensus is that they are most used by university students, though some usage is reported among tech workers and even secondary school students.

The term smart drug is used to describe a number of different prescription medications which may offer enhancements to memory, concentration, and boost overall cognitive enhancement. ADHD and ADD medications such as Ritalin and Adderall are on the list, as well as wakefulness drug modafinil.

Modafinil is a much newer drug than the ADHD medications described above, it’s currently only prescribed in Ireland to people with narcolepsy, an extremely uncommon sleep disorder. Not much is known yet about its long-term use as any studies have only focused on its short-term effects. Despite this, many people decide to use the drug without a prescription due to its ability to keep you awake for extended periods of time, and supposedly boost concentration levels.

Its usage appears to be on the rise in Ireland, possibly due to the emergence of online cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, which have made it easier to safely purchase smart drugs online. Numerous websites can be found online that offer “100% risk free” shipping of Wakalert and Modalert; generic brands of Armodafinil and Modafinil. One website seen by TheCity.ie claimed to ship from within the EU and offers a “money back guarantee if your package doesn’t arrive.”

Figures obtained from the Health Products Regulatory Authority report that no Adderall and just 90 units of Ritalin were seized by Customs in 2018. However, there was a massive spike in the purchase of Modafinil last year; 17,073 units were detained, a significant increase compared to the 5,488 units found by customs in 2017. A HPRA spokesperson confirmed that a trend of significant Modafinil seizures has continued this year.

What are the risks?

The HSE has published information on Drugs.ie in relation to the usage of drugs such as Ritalin or Modafinil without prescription.

The website stated that while these drugs may increase concentration and wakefulness, they often have side effects including “headaches, sleep disturbance, nausea, nervousness and dry mouth.”

More severe side effects include hypertension (high blood pressure), hallucinations, as well as thoughts of suicide.

A HSE spokesperson told TheCity.ie they are aware of medication such as Ritalin or Modafinil being used outside of prescribing recommendations for “cognitive enhancing purposes.”

“Many studies have shown that any increase in concentration gained from these drugs “will be greatly offset by the sleep disturbance they are likely to cause,” the spokesperson said.

The main issue with unprescribed usage of these substances is the lack of long-term safety data, particularly for Modafinil.

“While currently it seems like Modafinil has less abuse potential than stimulant drugs, there have been cases of mania, aggression and hallucinations likely triggered by Modafinil use. As it is still a very new drug, there isn’t enough long-term safety data on Modafinil for it to be used unless prescribed by a doctor,” the spokesperson added.

Who is using them?

Anecdotal evidence suggested that students in Ireland are aware of the misuse of these medications among friends, according to the HSE.

TheCity.ie spoke to a number of students anonymously, who said they had noticed an upward trend in the use of smart drugs, especially Modafinil. One Trinity College Dublin student who admitted to regularly using modafinil, said it helps them do all-nighter study sessions to prepare for exams.

“I usually do massive sessions in the library without stopping, for up to 10 hours at times. Modafinil completely suppresses my appetite, so I only need water and short toilet breaks to keep me going. You sort of become a zombie, entranced in the work you’re doing,” the student said.

They said that it had become increasingly popular to use smart drugs to help finish assignments and aid last minute study for exams: “I’ve never encouraged any of my friends to take it, but quite a few have tried it or are actively using it.”

Another student, from Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin), said they had been using it for 18 months, but stopped using it due to the side effects.

“I used to use it to help me do college work last minute as admittedly, I was a serious procrastinator. But I really hated taking it as it would always make me feel dizzy and unwell, and I became really moody on it.

“I started to get really irritated by small things that would never usually bother me, so I stopped taking it and got my act in order instead. I now get a proper night’s sleep and do my work consistently rather than last minute, and I feel much better about myself.”

What do the experts think?

Dr Brendan Clune, Medical Director of TU Dublin’s Medical Centre, said most students that attend the centre in relation to Modafinil or Ritalin have a prescription. He said there were a few cases of students taking them without a prescription, but in his experience,  they were mostly international students.

Dr Clune said: “Some students, mainly from the US, have been taking them for study purposes outside the normal guidelines. There seems to be a stronger and more accepted culture of taking these medications there.”

He said that while they would never support the use of Ritalin or Modafinil in such a fashion, the GPs would always “encourage users of these meds to attend to discuss any fears or side effects”.

“If someone decides to operate outside the normal guidelines, check out the potential side effects. Be wary of potential interference with other medications, including the contraceptive pill. Be wary of interactions with alcohol, report any cardiac irregularity, check your blood pressure, be wary of any effect on your psychological condition.”

Lack of research

Studies into the use of the ‘smart drugs’ in Ireland are nearly nonexistent, and a spokesperson from the Irish Health Research Board confirmed there is no data or research being done on unprescribed usage of Ritalin or Modafinil.

The only existing study that covers Ireland was conducted by the London School of Economics and Kings College London in 2014. It examined the use of these drugs among college students in the UK and Ireland.

The study reported that 6% of students had used Modafinil, while 3% had used either Ritalin or Adderall. Ease of access via online vendors was indicted as a key factor of Modafinil’s popularity, with 64% of those surveyed saying they purchased it through websites.

The HSE said it has “no available data” in relation to the misuse of smart drugs for cognitive enhancing purposes, but it is something that will be reviewed in 2020.

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