Thursday, May 20, 2010

Adderall: Performance Enhancing Drug for the Brain?

The use of prescription stimulants as a study and test aid for students is an increasingly popular trend. The most common of these drugs is Adderall, a stimulant of the central nervous system that is used as a medication for those with ADHD. It increases alertness and concentration, overall cognitive performance, and decreases fatigue. Adderall is classified as a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substance Act because of its potential for abuse and dependence and yet many college students are using this drug as a study and test aid unworried about the potential consequences.

60 Minutes featured a story on Adderall, focusing on how healthy students use the drug to boost their brain power. The use of what scientist call cognitive enhancers is becoming more common among college and high school students. One study estimated that 6.4% of college students are using stimulants non medically, a number that the Partnership for Drug Free America believes is closer to 25%.

Student interviews and a study at the University of Kentucky-Lexington seem to support these higher numbers. In an interview with Katie Couric, students stated that it was very common to see other students using the pills when they needed to turn out a final paper or cram for an exam. Students commented that taking the drug made them more focused, more interested, and more detail oriented when reading and studying material. A study at the university suggests that around 34% of students are using a stimulant to help them academically.

The big question is; is using Adderall or Ritalin to focus and study longer using a performance enhancing drug for the brain? About 43% of these students think they are increasing their overall grades by at least one letter. Does that mean these drugs are an unfair advantage for students who do not need them medically?

We can draw parallels to the debate against the use of PEDs in sport. There is a pressure for students to get good grades and there is an air of competition in collegiate academics. Students want the best internships and jobs and being the top of the class can give them an extra edge. If half of students improve their grades using drugs, will the other half be forced to use as well to keep up? Will the demand for non-prescription stimulants increase, causing them to become more expensive and to be sold and traded on the black market?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, students who use Adderall nonmedically are more likely to be binge drinkers or heavy drinkers and use illicit drugs when compared to their non-Adderall using peers. This is consistent with what we see with students who use steroids as well.

And of course, like steroids, there are potential consequences that are related to the use of the drug. Side effects of taking Adderall include loss of appetite, insomnia, abdominal pains, temporary increase in blood pressure, weight loss, mood swings, vomiting, dizziness, weakness, increased heart rate, fever and infections. Psychosis is also a side effect of the drug. Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse stated that these stimulants can be addictive and can lead to heart and blood pressure problems. The long term effect on people without attention disorder is also an unknown.

There are arguments that it comes down to a moral belief. Should we use drugs to enhance the abilities of otherwise healthy individuals? What about those who need Adderall because of attention disorder? This drug is supposed to help them function like everyone else. If someone who isn’t afflicted takes Adderall, they again have an advantage.

It is clear that education on the use of drugs needs to be expanded beyond the traditional drugs of abuse (alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, etc.). Those students who believe they are taking a harmless drug that will improve their cognitive abilities need to be aware of the side effects. Also, Adderall is not a miracle drug and cannot replace time in a classroom, or attending lectures.

There is no such thing as a magic pill.

A word of warning: There are serious consequences if you are in possession of the pill without a prescription or if you are caught selling Adderall. It is illegal and can result in jail time.


  1. I have been on and off Adderall for the better part of a decade now. I am a 26 year old, male. This drug works wonders if you have the strength to take it as prescribed. When I take Adderall, without abusing it, I feel I am able to live what a person would call a "normal life". It helps with my attention, concentration, motivation, I feel I can socialize easier and I perform better at work.

  2. I have a question... Why is this a bad thing? If more people are getting higher scores on tests this is a GREAT thing. I know plenty of kids that don't take Adderall that do way better academically than kids that do take it. It is all in will power. If you don't want to harm your body with drugs (like me) good more power to you. It is not like Adderall makes people magically learn material anyway. If some kids are aware of the risks, and it helps them focus on homework then how is this bad? Most research shows this drug is harmless, but there is always opposition that say it is addictive (like marijuana). These people are the kids and parents of kids who fear competition. The same kids who are always making excuses for how everything is somebody else's fault. Take some responsibility (or Adderall) and hit the books. Andrew Carnagie, one of the most successful and caring barons said "And while the law of competition may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department." Maybe when they make a drug that directly teaches you some then you cry foul.

  3. There are many taking this drug to excel in sports. NCAA needs to take a closer look at these athletes. It is not only be taken for the classroom.