Some teenagers and young adults abuse medications — intended to treat obesity, depression and ADHD — as “study drugs” to improve academic performance.
In a 2013 Drug and Alcohol Dependence study, researchers examined their motivations: a complex mixture of personal, interpersonal and environmental risks.
Prescription stimulant basics
Broadly speaking, the term “stimulant” applies to a number of medications, including legal amphetamine-based substances and non-amphetamine-based substances. Examples of amphetamine-based prescription stimulants include amphetamine itself and dextroamphetamine (the two active ingredients in the ADHD medication Adderall), as well as methamphetamine (the active ingredient in an ADHD and anti-obesity medication called Desoxyn).
The most prominent example of a non-amphetamine-based stimulant medication is probably methylphenidate, the main ingredient in the ADHD medications Ritalin, Methylin and Concerta.
As a rule, all of these substances do such things as increase cell communication rates inside the brain, speed up a person’s heartbeat and blood flow, and speed up the lungs’ cycle of inward and outward breaths. In addition, specific stimulant preparations may also have more targeted effects on the brain, heart or other organs.
Stimulants used as study drugs
When used in the context of study drugs, the term prescription stimulant is typically applied much more narrowly to the frontline ADHD medications Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta and Dexedrine. High school and college students sometimes use these medications in an attempt to enhance their academic performance or improve their alertness and endurance during the often arduous process of preparing for examinations.
Since ADHD medications aren’t designed or prescribed for these purposes, their use in these contexts automatically qualifies as a form of drug abuse. This holds true for anyone who does not have a prescription for a given medication; it also holds true for prescription users who disregard their doctors’ instructions and exceed their normal medication dosages. When used improperly, all study drugs expose their users to significant risks for the development of chemical dependence and drug addiction. These risks are particularly prominent in abusers unaffected by the symptoms of ADHD.
Important influences for study drug abuse
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from Oregon State University and UC Berkeley used an examination of 520 U.S. college students enrolled at a single campus to explore the factors that contribute to the risks for involvement in study drug (prescription stimulant) abuse. Each of these students participated in a detailed, written survey designed to identify a range of personal, interpersonal and environmental influences that can potentially motivate the use of these drugs in any given person. After reviewing the completed surveys, the researchers found that nearly 26% of the participating students had used/abused study drugs. Over 50% of these students had begun their drug use after entering college; typically, the avenue of drug acquisition was a friend or acquaintance rather than a stereotypical “drug dealer.”
The researchers identified personal influences on study drug use that include a prior diagnosis of ADHD, an ethnic self-identification as “white,” maintenance of a fairly low GPA (grade-point average) and a relatively low ability to avoid drug use in general. Identified interpersonal influences on study drug use include participation in officially sanctioned athletic programs, a desire to “belong” to one’s social environment and residence in housing outside of the college dormitory system. Identified environmental influences on study drug use include relatively extensive knowledge of the effects of stimulant medications, a relatively benign attitude toward stimulant use and exposure to printed materials on prescription medications in general. As a rule, study drug users believe in the drugs’ effectiveness as aids for academic performance and take the drugs for that reason.
A larger trend?
The authors of the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence characterize the level of study drug (prescription stimulant) use on their chosen campus as “prevalent.” Since the study was narrowly focused, the authors don’t know if the same levels of usage or the same motivating influences hold true for college students as a whole. However, there were enough students involved in the study to substantially increase the likelihood that its results also apply on a larger scale.