Every year, the number of college students misusing “study drugs” is increasing. In fact, prescription drug abuse is the fastest growing drug problem in the United States after alcohol and marijuana. So called study drugs are prescription stimulants that were approved by the FDA to treat conditions such as ADD, ADHD and narcolepsy; yet widespread misuse of these drugs is so normalised among students, it’s not really stigmatised.
Students misuse prescription drugs for a variety of reasons; ranging from boosting concentration and studying for longer to losing weight, partying or relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety. What these students probably don’t know is misuse or abuse of study drugs can be dangerous and in some cases fatal.
We look at the most commonly-abused prescription drugs among college students, how misuse or abuse affects young brains and how they can lead to long-term, potentially life-threatening addiction.
What is a study drug?
Study drugs are prescription stimulants which are used for the treatment of ADD and ADHD as well as a range of mental health issues such as narcolepsy, depression and anxiety. Also known as neuro enhancers, they’re commonly shared among college students or sold by dealers to students who feel overwhelmed and overworked.
Study drugs can increase alertness and energy for a short time. They can also increase your heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure which makes them dangerous to use if not prescribed for a learning condition or medical issue that is monitored by a doctor or psychiatrist. In fact, these “study buddies” don’t increase learning and thinking ability but college students continue to take them under the mistaken belief that they do help.
The two prescription stimulants that are used as study drugs are:
- Amphetamines like Adderall, Vyvanse and Dexedrine
- Methylphenidates like Ritalin and Concerta
These prescription stimulants are the second-most frequently misused category of drugs; behind alcohol and marijuana and ahead of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other prescription drugs.
What are the most common study drugs used by college students?
Most study drugs used by college students are Schedule II controlled substances that are prescribed for the treatment of attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These so-called “study drugs” offer youngsters with ADD or ADHD almost “miraculous” benefits to improve concentration and focus but they have high potential for abuse and addiction which is why they are heavily regulated.
Adderall is one of the most widely-used prescription stimulants among college students. It’s an amphetamine that increases the release of dopamine in users. Adderall is intended to treat ADHD and narcolepsy and can be effective when used as prescribed.
College students commonly use Adderall to get through midterms, finals and other major school assignments. Students also use the drug to lose weight, increase athletic performance and get high.
Ritalin is a methylphenidate drug that was developed to treat low blood pressure and, prior to the 1960s, was used to treat depression, narcolepsy, lethargy and senility. Today, Ritalin is predominantly prescribed to treat ADHD, as the drug’s release of dopamine and norepinephrine help increase energy and focus.
This is also why students commonly turn to Ritalin for help studying and staying focused in class. However, prolonged use by those without ADHD can cause changes in brain chemistry, leading to increased risky behavior and disruptive sleep patterns. Like Adderall, Ritalin has high risk of misuse and withdrawal symptoms.
Under the supervision of doctors, Ritalin has been successfully used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy.
Concerta is another methylphenidate-based drug but it has a longer release than Ritalin. Students may use it to help with prolonged study, lose weight or get high. When snorted or taken intravenously, Concerta can have psychological and physical effects similar to meth.
Those with ADHD or narcolepsy may opt to take Concerta instead of Ritalin because the drug’s long-lasting effect generally means patients only need one dose per day.
Focalin or Attenade
These dexmethylphenidate drugs are similar to Ritalin and Concerta. They have a slightly different chemical structure so a smaller dose of Focalin can be used to achieve the same effect as a higher dose of Ritalin.
Developed in the early 2000s, Focalin is a fairly new drug. Students use it to help them focus on college work but may also use it to get high as the physical effects can be similar to cocaine. Abusers often crush and snort Focalin. Coming down from Focalin can be hectic and students may experience anxiety, depression and other physical and psychological symptoms.
Focalin can be taken orally by those with ADHD or narcolepsy but only when prescribed by a doctor. Focalin can also worsen tension and anxiety. Students who take anxiety medications or hope to counteract Focalin’s comedown with anxiety medications put themselves at high health risk.
Dexedrine – also sold as Dextrostat – is a dextroamphetamine. It is less commonly prescribed than other amphetamines but like Adderall, it can be used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. It is often misused or abused by college students due to its brain stimulating properties.
Students may perceive Dexedrine as a safe way to boost their focus and maximize their productivity. However, because the drug manipulates the brain’s reward system, students feel good when they take the drug and bad when they don’t take it. Dexedrine has a high risk of dependency.
Dexedrine should only be taken as directed by a doctor to treat ADHD or narcolepsy. Dosage should be carefully monitored and long-term use is not recommended because tolerance to Dexedrine can build quickly.
Vyvanse is the newest FDA-approved ADHD treatment drug available in the United States. It’s a lisdexamfetamine drug which was developed as an alternative to amphetamine. Vyvanse has longer-lasting effects and a lower risk of dependency.
Vyvanse has also been approved to treat binge eating disorders because of its appetite suppressing effects. Students may use Vyvanse to lose weight, increase their focus in class or when studying, boost their energy or get high.
Vyvanse has a lower risk of dependency because it remains inactive until it is metabolised in the body, and it releases very slowly. The free form of the stimulant also cannot be activated by crushing the drug. However, this shouldn’t give students a false sense of security. Vyvanse is still a Schedule II controlled substance and should only be used as prescribed for ADHD or binge eating disorder.
Why study drugs can lead to addiction
When misused or abused, study drugs may lead to addiction for many young college students. The prolonged use of study drugs by people who are not formally prescribed the drug by a medical professional nor monitored carefully while using them, can have long-term negative effects on brain functioning. Study drugs can also become habit-forming and can lead to an addiction in adulthood.
The side effects of study drugs can be debilitating and even fatal. For example, an overdose of a study drug can lead to a stroke, heart attack, liver failure and even death.
Let’s take Adderall as an example of how a study drug can lead to addiction.
Adderall is made from a combination of four amphetamine salts. When ingested, Adderall stimulates dopamine which is a neurotransmitter linked to the reward center or pleasure center of the brain. This stimulation causes the brain to release excess amounts of dopamine which in turn provides clarity, focus and euphoria. Dopamine also provides a sense of calmness that works to centralise and streamline thinking patterns.
The reason why a prescription stimulant like Adderall is a “miracle drug” for someone suffering from ADD or ADHD is because it balances out the level of neurotransmitters in the nervous system. Dopamine and norepinephrine are two neurotransmitters that may play a major role in ADD and ADHD.
However, if you have not been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD; Adderall can induce a high that’s similar to a street drug. This is because the stimulant amplifies dopamine production in a nervous system that already has a good balance of dopamine. This in turn messes with your brain’s reward pathways. The euphoria reward you experience from excess dopamine can become addictive, prompting you to use Adderall again and again.
Why do college students misuse and abuse study drugs?
John knows he has to pull an all-nighter to cram for an important exam, so he takes one of his brother’s Ritalin tablets which is prescribed for ADHD.
Jane is under pressure to improve her academic marks to keep her bursary, so she buys Adderall tablets from a fellow student who illegally deals in prescription stimulants.
Seems harmless enough, except that it’s illegal to use prescription drugs without a valid prescription or to distribute them. It’s also dangerous and potentially fatal because misuse of study drugs can cause serious health problems and can lead to addiction.
There are a number of reasons why prescription stimulants are misused or abused by college students as well as overworked and highly-pressurised individuals such as models, musicians, actors and actresses, chefs, healthcare workers, housewives and business executives alike.
The key reason is prescription stimulants are believed to have mind-enhancing effects and help people cope with the pressures of work overload and burnout. They’re also used as appetite suppressants and to “get high” because they can bring on euphoric highs which are similar to those of cocaine. This is why they’re also known as diet drugs or party drugs.
How do study drugs affect young brains?
When young college students take study drugs like Adderall or Ritalin, the prescription stimulants boost the effects of neurotransmitters in their brain and body.
These stimulants cause adolescents’ brains and the rest of their nervous system to become hyper-stimulated and it functions abnormally fast because the brain produce an unnatural amount of energy. This is why study drugs can cause a person to experience a racing heart, raised body temperatures and rapid breathing.
To understand how study drugs work, we need to explain what dopamine is.
What is dopamine and what role does it play?
Nerve cells send messages between the brain and the rest of the body by releasing a type of neurotransmitter called dopamine. Your body makes dopamine naturally and your nervous system uses it as a chemical messenger in order for your brain and body to function properly.
Dopamine also plays a role in how we experience pleasure and how we think, plan, stay focused and find things interesting. Dopamine affects the part of your brain that controls behaviour and memory, otherwise known as the reward pathway of the brain.
When the brain makes the connection between the activity and the pleasure, we will likely repeat the behaviour. Too much dopamine in your nervous system can lead to a vast range of physical and mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, obesity and addiction.
How do study drugs play havoc with your brain
Prescriptions stimulants have chemical structures that are designed to mimic neurotransmitters like dopamine. When youngsters misuse prescription stimulants, the delicate balance of neurotransmitters in their body is disrupted and the reward pathways of the brain are altered.
Abusing these study stimulants can also unnaturally deplete your brain’s production of serotonin and endorphins. These are the chemicals that allow us to experience happiness, pleasure and joy. Continued misuse can lead to depression, anxiety and other mental disorders.
Study drugs can also permanently change the brain’s pre-frontal cortex. This is the part of your brain that you need to make smart decisions, think ahead and plan, interact with others in a healthy way and control your behaviour. When college students misuse study drugs, this part of their young brain can fail to develop properly.
The nasty side efforts of study drugs
When you are prescribed stimulants like Ritalin and Concerta for conditions like ADD and ADHD, you start with a low dose which is built up slowly and carefully over a period of time. You’re also closely monitored by your prescribing doctor as prescription stimulants can cause serious medical issues.
- irregular heartbeat
- high blood pressure
- heart failure
- intense anger
- erectile dysfunction
Students who misuse study drugs often think they’re harmless but in fact, they can be extremely dangerous for both your physical and mental health. They are just as addictive as street drugs like cocaine and heroin because you can become dependent on them because of how they alter your brain’s reward pathways.
If you do become addicted to study drugs, you’ll experience horrible symptoms when you try to quit. This includes depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, intense drug cravings, insomnia and chronic fatigue.
The reality is prescription stimulants have no real brain-enhancing benefits for people without ADD or ADHD. In fact, they can make you feel more keyed-up, over-excited and impulsive. This makes it more difficult to settle down and concentrate on the pile of work you have to get through before exams.
Another problem is if you take a study drug too late, you won’t be able to fall asleep. You’ll go into your exam the next day feeling exhausted and drained of energy.
Are study drugs illegal?
In light of the dangers we’ve highlighted regarding the misuse and abuse of study drugs, you’d think they would be illegal. However, they are not inherently illegal. Only selling or giving away prescription stimulants is illegal as well as possessing someone else’s prescription for these drugs.
Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s harmless to regularly use a study drug so you can cram for an exam. Just like fentanyl, oxycontin, cocaine and morphine; your “study buddies” are Schedule 2 drugs and heavily regulated because of their strong potential for addiction and abuse.
The side effects are also nasty; mixing them with alcohol, marijuana or other drugs and an overdose of the stimulant can be fatal. Rather stick to old-fashioned ways of staying awake to study for exams. Get lots of exercise, fresh air, eating healthily and maybe strong coffee with sugar to give you a quick energy spike.
Contact us today if you’d like a confidential and free chat with one of our highly-trained professionals at White River Manor.