Background: Neuroenhancement is the use of substances by healthy subjects to enhance mood or cognitive function. The prevalence of neuroenhancement among Swiss university students is unknown. Investigating the prevalence of neuroenhancement among students is important to monitor problematic use and evaluate the necessity of prevention programs.
Study aim: To describe the prevalence of the use of prescription medications and drugs of abuse for neuroenhancement among Swiss university students.
Method: In this cross-sectional study, students at the University of Zurich, University of Basel, and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich were invited via e-mail to participate in an online survey.
Results: A total of 28,118 students were contacted, and 6,275 students completed the survey. Across all of the institutions, 13.8% of the respondents indicated that they had used prescription drugs (7.6%) or drugs of abuse including alcohol (7.8%) at least once specifically for neuroenhancement. The most frequently used prescription drugs for neuroenhancement were methylphenidate (4.1%), sedatives (2.7%), and beta-blockers (1.2%). Alcohol was used for this purpose by 5.6% of the participants, followed by cannabis (2.5%), amphetamines (0.4%), and cocaine (0.2%). Arguments for neuroenhancement included increased learning (66.2%), relaxation or sleep improvement (51.2%), reduced nervousness (39.1%), coping with performance pressure (34.9%), increased performance (32.2%), and experimentation (20%). Neuroenhancement was significantly more prevalent among more senior students, students who reported higher levels of stress, and students who had previously used illicit drugs. Although "soft enhancers", including coffee, energy drinks, vitamins, and tonics, were used daily in the month prior to an exam, prescription drugs or drugs of abuse were used much less frequently.
Conclusions: A significant proportion of Swiss university students across most academic disciplines reported neuroenhancement with prescription drugs and drugs of abuse. However, these substances are rarely used on a daily basis and more sporadically used prior to exams.