UNIVERSITIES must step in to help the growing number of students turning to “smart drugs” to cope with exam stress, a leading academic has said.

Professor Tim Hales, head of neuroscience at Dundee University, said institutions need to better educate young people about the dangers of the substances, also known as “nootropics” and billed as improving cognitive ability.

It comes amid fears that undergraduates, particularly at elite universities, are being driven to buy pills online in a bid to boost their energy levels amid the mounting pressures of fees and workplace competition.

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With unemployment among graduates at record levels, an increasing number of students are turning to ‘cognitive enhancing drugs’ in the hope of boosting their grades and therefore their job prospects.

It is understood students across Scotland are taking “cramming” drugs such as Modafinil, Adderall and Ritalin to improve alertness, concentration and memory capacity before exams.

The stimulants, normally prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or narcolepsy, have been linked to side-effects such as heart palpitations, insomnia and anxiety.

In the long term they may trigger psychiatric disorders and altered brain function.

Now Mr Hales is calling for universities to carry out a survey of all students to establish the scale of use and for more institutions to have counselling services to help those affected.

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Dundee University is set to be the first in Scotland to set up a workshop for students to help them beat exam stress without turning to drugs.

He said: “Universities need to be educating students properly on cognitive-enhancing drugs and the consequences they can have. Peddling the line that all drugs are bad and trying to ban them is not the right way to go about things. Students need to be informed about what they are taking so they can make the right decisions for themselves.

“We need to establish how widespread the problem is and we can only do that by surveying every student. Only then can we begin to understand how bad it is and if it is getting worse.”

The pharmaceuticals can be bought via online pharmacies in the US, Holland and India for £1 per pill for a pack of 20.

Mr Hales added: “In the short-term some of these drugs may not be harmful, but we don’t know about their potentially harmful cumulative effects.

“Different students will respond differently, particularly when taking other medications, alcohol or recreational drugs at the same time.”

The growth of smart drugs over the last five years has been well documented, especially in top institutions such as Oxford University.

In May 2016, Oxford’s student newspaper, the Cherwell, published the response to a survey which showed that 15.6 per cent of students had knowingly taken Modafinil or another study drug without prescription.

The university has now introduced workshops to educate young people about smart drugs, a move that is likely to be repeated by Dundee University in the coming months.

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A European study co-authored by Dr Robert Dempsey, lecturer in psychology at Staffordshire University, found that most university students believed it was “normal” to use drugs such as Ritalin to enhance academic performance.

Current estimates indicate about 10per cent of students had tried to enhance their cognitive performance with prescription drugs, alcohol or illegal drugs at least once.

Students are able to get hold of these drugs by buying them online or through prescription, with some claiming to have faked ADHD symptoms in order to be prescribed Ritalin and Adderall. A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland said: “If students are turning to prescription medications, bought online, to cope with the pressures of university life and exams this is clearly a welfare issue. “Universities are acutely aware of the importance of mental health. We’d want to give the message that it’s ok not to be ok and encourage any student suffering anxiety or stress to speak to a member of university staff as early as possible to get the right support.”