Tox Tuesday: Smart Drugs

Brain-Waves-Bigstock10453853_blogPrescribed to millions each year, “smart drugs,” such as Adderall and Ritalin, are used to treat those diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. These drugs work by combating the symptoms of the disorder allowing users to feel more focused, productive, and attentive toward everyday tasks.

However, it’s not just those diagnosed with ADHD that are seeking the feeling commonly associated with taking these types of medication. Rather, a growing number of high school and college students around the world are turning to these drugs as a way to help them stay on top of their growing list of academic and social demands. According to one article, studies indicate that as many as one in three students on major college campuses have used ADHD medications illicitly, most commonly as a study aid. In addition to the health concerns brought up by the recreational use of these drugs, another debate is ongoing: Can these drugs actually make someone smarter?

To be able to answer this question it’s important to first understand how these drugs really work. According to a recently published article in Neuorexia, these drugs work by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, two chemicals that scientists believe those with ADHD do not produce in the same amount as those without ADHD. These chemicals also directly activate “motivational circuits in the brain while suppressing background neuron firing.” When this happens people are able to focus more on the task at hand and are not as easily distracted. While this is exactly the reason these drugs are prescribed to patients with ADHD, the effects these drugs have on the brain of someone without ADHD are called into question.

One study from the University of Pennsylvania and detailed in Time Magazine involved 47 students in their mid-20s, all without ADHD. Each subject was tested both while on Adderall and on a placebo, while not knowing which type of pill they were receiving. As stated in the article, their performance on Adderall did not show improvement over their performance when taking the placebo. However, when researchers asked their subjects how much the pill influenced their performance, subjects who had been given Adderall were “significantly more likely to report that the pill had caused them to do a better job on the tasks.”

One writer, who previously wrote about this study, said these results do not come as a surprise due to the fact that not only does dopamine help to improve focus in those with ADHD, it also “triggers the brain’s reward system, and can produce a mild sense of euphoria.” He argues that “Adderall makes studying more pleasurable, helping student achievement by ramping up enthusiasm for academics overall.”

Another study detailed in Neuorexia, explains that when participants of a study expected to receive Ritalin instead of placebo, they reported better focus for longer periods of time regardless of what they actually took. Conversely, when they didn’t expect to get the drug, participants’ attention wavered and they performed worse on their given task, even when they did in fact receive Ritalin.

This study also went on to explain that, “the subjective feeling of getting high was also related to the expectation of getting Ritalin rather than actually taking Ritalin.” These results could argue that neuroenhancement, including in people who actually are diagnosed ADHD, is actually nothing but placebo effects.

While these and other studies offer little proof that “smart drugs” can actually make a person smarter, there are plenty of students who argue that although they do not have ADHD, these drugs help them stay focused while studying for an important test. “Instead of wanting to lay around and do nothing, I actually wanted to get things done,” one student at Auburn University said in an interview with the Huffington Post.

Another concern university officials have is that students do not see these types of medication as drugs at all. According to Alan DeSantis, a sociologist at the University of Kentucky, he began studying the culture of ADHD drug use on campus when upon asking students about drugs, they would respond with, “I don’t do drugs, but I do Adderall.”

“The misuse of prescription drugs among college students often flies under the radar,” said Natalie Rich, an alcohol and drug intervention specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to the Huffington Post. “Students think these drugs are safer than street drugs, but in reality, their effects are very similar, and they can be highly addictive.”

Along with legal consequences of using the medication without a prescription, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, these drugs can cause hallucinations, impulsive behavior, paranoia, and irritability. They can also increase blood pressure, heart rate, nervousness, insomnia and in 2011 case of Richard Fee — even death.

Fee, a 24-year-old college graduate, made headlines when his addiction to prescription stimulants,which he received by falsely convincing doctors he had ADHD, turned deadly when took his own life after his most recent prescription for Adderall ran out.

While ADHD experts interviewed for the story originally published by the New York Times, agreed that “worst-case scenarios like Fee’s can occur with any medication,” the long-term effects of those taking the medication without the disorder are unknown and there is still research yet to be done.

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