Pills: Friend or Foe?

“Over the course of your lifetime, you are likely to be prescribed more than 40,000 pills”. (BBC Documentary)


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I don’t know about you but I was in utter shock when I heard this. But really, how many of those 40,000 are truly beneficial? Let alone the unknown side effects that remain undetected till centuries later.

I would like to share with you the story of Ritalin, a drug originally designed to control depression in adults. Like many science discoveries, luck also plays a huge role in Ritalin’s story. By chance, Ritalin is also effective in relieving symptoms of attention deficit hyperacitivity disorder (ADHD) in hyperactive children.


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While all sounds good, Ritalin has a third function. Or not.


In the brains of the healthy, Ritalin

  1. Improves memory-related task
  2. Has cognitive enhancer property that improves neural network and ultimately increases intelligence.
  3. Boosts chemical messengers in a healthy brain, increasing concentration level and attention span

In simpler terms, it is known to students as ‘the smart pill’. With the potential of making us cleverer, would you consider taking Ritalin?





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A Cambridge student claims that taking Ritalin is the same as cheating as one is not in his/her natural state and is therefore an unfair competition between peer in terms of achievements. If one student takes it, surely others will follow just to be able to compete. Meanwhile some students use Ritalin to get past deadline or an exam to compensate for a weekend spent on partying.

Others have different opinion, whereby Ritalin is used by surgeons to ensure that they stay alert during long surgery hours. In this case, would taking Ritalin be acceptable and ethical?

Professor Barbara Sahakian of University of Cambridge  argues that Ritalin is a good drug if it is used to lighten the work load to offer more family time. This would mean improving the balance between work and life. However in the current competitive society, individuals may consume Ritalin just so they can work for longer hours to earn more money. This way of thinking poses a greater disruption to the work-life balance.

If a compound has multiple functions, it is very likely that pharmaceutical companies create a new market that is previously non-existent to earn big bucks. With Ritalin there is a ready market, where students are willing to pay up to $5 per pill. The real question remains to be: what is the medical condition?

Ideally, we want to ensure that drugs are designed for a specific purpose and that it works against the intended target. The story of Ritalin proves otherwise. Its immense potential is only known years after its creation and following accidental or intentional consumption in non-target patients. Ritalin is just one of these drugs. Compound ‘UK9240’ from Pfizer is another example – a drug initially designed for angina but failed. Later, it became commercially successful as Viagra- a drug to treat erectile dysfunction but more popular as ‘sextasy’

A pill is made up of chemicals, that when consumed disrupt the normal biological processes in our body. Surely this will introduce side effects, ranging from mild to deadly. One has to consider if the risks outweigh the benefits. If only there is a cure-for-all miracle pill in the future.


  1. BBC Documentary: pill poppers (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00q9jfs)
  2. The Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/national/ritalin-is-students-new-drug-of-choice-for-parties-and-studying-20100226-p953.html)
Faustina Sari Setiawan is a Msc Biotech student in the University of Melbourne. O how she wishes there is a pill that could make her grow taller.

17 Responses to “Pills: Friend or Foe?”

  1. setiawan says:

    @Rizky: Hi Rizky, I don’t think it’s a good idea to take Ritalin. Although in the short term it might improve memory and focus, brain damage result in the long term. Coffee or tea might be a better option 😀

    @sathanad: Thank you fo your comments. I agree with you that the society needs a wake up call. I hope Hollywood has given enough examples of misuse of durgs.

  2. sathanad says:

    Thanks for the interesting read! Really made me think. I really don’t understand recreational drug use-All the cool kids that do it for fun- just because they can. Drugs abuse is a serious issue and so many people are dying from accidental overdose in society (eg. Whitney Houston and Finn from Glee). Instead of learning from example, the issue seems to be worsening. I think it’s cheating and a lazy in this academic context (unfair advantage). There are so many students out their working really hard, with little sleep and without the aid of any such enhancers. So what makes these people so special? It seems like drugs are taking over the world- in sport with doping (Lance Armstrong) and the Essendon football scandal. It’s unacceptable. Society needs a wake up call, or have an intervention. Drugs are dangerous.

  3. Rizky says:

    Would it have any side effects? If no, then I don’t mind taking it.

  4. setiawan says:

    @Darwin, Mel and Rashika: Thank you. For children with ADHD, both US and Australia government have actually been promoting the use of Ritalin. This explains the large surge of Ritalin’s use over the past decade. Although one can only purchase Ritalin using prescriptions as a form of control that government can exert, ADHD-suffering patients have been known to sell or let their friends try Ritalin. As such, it is very difficult to effectively control whether Ritalin is being misused. There are however recent articles from health and regulatory bodies that recommend physicians that Ritalin should only be the last option for people with ADHD due to the side effects that are only obvious in long-term (prospective study). To date, the effectiveness of this recommendation has not yet been seen.

  5. Rashika says:

    Interesting post!!! I think Government should make strict regulations for these type of medicines..

  6. Mel says:

    As much as I understand how tempting it is to take “the smart pills”, i agree that it as a form of cheating. It’s the same concept as athletes who take performance-enhacing drugs. I wish there are some ways to control the use of these drugs, but it’s going to be difficult to track down students who consume them and to really determine how much consumption is too much. Thank you for writing this article and bringing the issue into light. 🙂

  7. Darwin says:

    Very interesting article, I never realized the extent to which brain enhancing drugs are used. I wonder if the government intent to or is even capable of controlling the use of these drugs.

  8. setiawan says:

    @Jeane: Glad you enjoy the reading. I agree that vitamins and supplements are a better option than Ritalin. 🙂

    @Deepika: To date there is no exact known adverse effect but there are reports which mention that Ritalin can lead to impaired brain performance in adulthoold when fed to children with no ADHD. But the founded side effects of Ritalin are symptoms such as tremor, rapid heart beat, high blood pressure.

    @Liang: Glad to hear you enjoy it. I agree that government needs to exert a better control over the sale of over-the-counter medicine as well as what kind of drugs should be approved for consumption and for the specified purpose.

    @Wendy: Glad to know you enjoy the post. I have never heard of Unimelb students taking antidepression pills as most people I know rely on energy drinks during exam. And I’ve heard that anti-depression pills can actually lead to obesity. But yes I do agree that it’s always best not to take any pills for exams. You never know what side effects might appear while you are doing the test.

  9. Wendy Nguyen says:

    Interesting information. I know that some students in Unimelb, they take antidepression pills to keep them awake during exam period. I wonder if it helps them to “survive” the exam or not but I dont like the idea of taking pills for exam. it sounds horrible…

  10. Liang Ma says:

    Interesting! Ritalin sounds risky but it also looks good. I might consider more about the drugs and medicines that I might take. It is also a big concern about drug abuse. Government need to do something and control it better. Those drugs are very likely to be abused.

  11. Deepika says:

    Hi,thanks for the informative post.
    Do you know if popping smart pills has any adverse affect?
    For example athletes taking anabolic steroids to gain an unfair edge may sometimes backfire and cause deleterious side effects.

  12. Jeane Angelina says:

    Thanks for sharing this information! For me, I just drink supplements before exam like Ginkgo Brahmi or vitamin C to boost energy, which are less side effects. Sad to hear that Ritalin used in ‘wrong’ way I may say? 🙂

  13. Faustina Setiawan says:

    @Gabriel: thanks for the info. I hope students like us think carefully before consuming too much of those chemicals and salts.

    @Charlotte and Katie: More studies will need to be carried out to find out the long-term effects. However i do find an article saying that children who are mis-diagnosed with ADHD and was given Ritalin shows impaired brain performance as adults. This is actually on top of Ritalin side effects that include tremor, rapid heart beat, high blood pressure, etc.

    @zziqbal: Thanks for the input. 🙂 The logic behind why I used ‘foe’ is that we thought the drugs we are taking will cure the disease we intend to cure. But by it having a different function, this may possibly have other effects on our well-being that we may not know of. Although ritalin’s function is indeed an added bonus, students are abusing it and there is not enough evidence as of now to conclude that it won’t have future negative side-effects. As for the 40,000 number, I would have presumed it’s from a co-hort studies.

  14. katied says:

    Great post! I shall add and say that it is not just Ritalin students are taking, Modafinil is becoming quite popular too. It allows you to stay awake all night without feeling tired the next day. According to what I have heard, it works quite well too. Its scary to think high achieving students, particular medical students, are increasingly taking these drugs, which could potentially do them a world of harm. I also wonder, like Charlotte, if anyone has even started a trial testing the long term affects on young healthy adults? Scary stuff…

  15. zziqbal says:

    Very interesting story; this is one they should cover in our pharmacology lectures. 🙂 The idea of the different uses of Ritalin is quite interesting as well; I never would have thought students and surgeons were using the same sort of stimulant for two very similar and yet different contexts.

    [ Ritalin has a third function. Or not.] – a very catchy phrase. Or phrases I suppose.

    What I don’t understand is the logic behind the “and foe” part of your title; you have implied there may be harmful side-effects but what you’ve really discussed are the off-target effects which may simply be a different sort of beneficial. This seems to be more a discussion about the ethics of a drug like Ritalin than its actual effects, which doesn’t really relate to the implications from this statement: [But really, how many of those 40, 000 are truly beneficial? Let alone the unknown side effects that remain undetected till centuries later.]

    [‘sextasy’] – is the end of a paragraph so you’re missing a fullstop there. And there was a “40,000” vs. “40, 000”: it might be better to keep that consistent. Speaking of, I wonder how they managed to determine that number. Hmm…

  16. Charlotte says:

    This is the first I’ve heard of academic performance enhancing pills, and I think it’s a bizarre concept. I seriously question our society’s tendency to turn to drugs for non-medicinal purposes. I wonder what the long term effects of taking something like Ritalin will be?

  17. Gabriel Bernasochi says:

    Interestingly, a lot of university students are abusing amphetamine salts such as Adderall to stay up and study or complete projects. A quick Google search reveals a wealth of information about it. It’s even been referenced in pop culture (see Annie from ‘Community’).