What if a pill really could render you limitless? The use of so-called ‘smart drugs’ – or cognitive enhancers – and the unauthorized use of prescription stimulant medications are characterized by growing trends among high school and college students. From stimulants such as modafinil to amphetamines (often prescribed under the name Adderall) and methylphenidate (also known by its brand name Ritalin), reports suggest usage is widespread.
Nationally, college students have begun using these drugs to enhance their performance in school. Cram revision sessions – previously aided by a mild caffeine shot – are increasingly fuelled by medicated stimulants.
The dramatic increases in stimulant prescriptions over the last two decades has led to greater availability, and therefore increased risk of misuse. Alarmingly, prescription stimulants, such as Concerta or Adderall, are increasingly being used to address non-medical conditions in everyday scenarios and are perceived by many to be generally safe and effective. But the non-medical use of prescription stimulants has been identified as a clinical concern for physicians and family health practitioners.
The brain on stimulants
In order to understand the reasons why so many college students use stimulants as a crutch to get them through their academic careers, it’s important to recognise the effects on the brain.
Stimulants excite and speed up the central nervous system (CNS), and are generally used for their ability to increase alertness, attention and endurance, and to keep people awake and active for a long period of time. Stimulants can promote wakefulness by raising the levels of key chemicals in the brain and in other parts of the body. For example, dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine and Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta) act in the brain similarly to a family of key brain neurotransmitters called monoamines, which include norepinephrine and dopamine.
Increased levels of dopamine can induce a feeling of euphoria when stimulants are taken non-medically, but can induce physical and psychological dependence.
While the drugs are being used to bolster performance, research is failing to provide robust evidence which suggests that grades actually improve when prescription stimulants are used non-medically. Rather, the drugs can have some unpleasant and lasting side effects: fatigue, anxiety and depression, increased blood pressure and heart rate, and constricted blood vessels. Misusing prescription stimulants can also lead to stimulant use disorders, and poses potential health risks, such as a developing addiction, cardiovascular events, and psychosis.
Despite decades of study, a full picture has yet to emerge of the cognitive effects of the classic psychostimulants.
Addressing the problem
Most people obtain study drugs from a friend or relative who has a prescription. Sometimes, those with prescriptions don’t know who took their medicine. Accessibility is certainly an issue intensifying the problem.
There have been substantial improvements which can be largely interpreted as a result of changes in attitudes about drug use, beliefs about the risks of drug use, and peer norms against drug use. Improvements are surely not inevitable; and when they occur, they should not be taken for granted. Relapse is always possible and is the longer term epidemic.
The drug problem cannot be extinguished head-on. It’s a recurring problem which must be contained to the extent possible on an ongoing basis, and one that takes into account the differing generational attitudes and the stream of new substances that threaten to lure young people into involvement with drugs.
Part of recovery is recognizing the symptoms of someone using study drugs, followed by admission of the problem. A person using study drugs may present the following signs and symptoms.
Emotionally you may see an increase in:
- Extreme emotional highs and lows “depression-like” symptoms
Physically you may notice:
- Bloodshot eyes
- Abnormally large or smaller pupils
- Loss of appetite and/or weight
- Over or under-sleeping – more or less than 10 hours
- An unexplained chronic cough
- Pale or ashy complexion
In the long-term, treatment is an essential component of the recovery process. Drug addiction treatment involves a number of components. Recovery from a substance use and managing symptoms of withdrawal is best done with the help of professionals who are able to guide the individual through challenging times. When looking for a treatment program, find out if they understand and are equipped to treat someone with this type of addiction.
It requires a specialized, academically-focused team to encourage individuals with a drug use disorder to push the boundaries on what they think they can achieve, while providing help building robust coping mechanisms in the face of daily stressors. LGBT Rehab which also revives passion and the motivation to succeed and achieve on one’s own merit.
Ultimately, dependency on study drugs is complex with a high relapse rate. This is because peers may also be using drugs, making it a perceived norm, but also admitting to a substance misuse is a problem if the individual doesn’t see anything wrong. If attitudes towards certain drugs are benign, those views have to be continually challenged, which is why education in recovery is key.