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The non-prescription use of stimulant drugs, such as Adderall® and Ritalin®, appears to be on the rise. You might hear them nicknamed “study drugs” or “brain steroids,” and this phenomenon can cast a negative light on the legitimate use of these medications by those who are prescribed them.

For students who are clinically diagnosed with conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), these drugs can be a lifesaver. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, at least two of every 25–30 young adults in the U.S. need help for ADHD.

For more information about ADHD in young adults, CLICK HERE.

But for students who use these stimulants off-label, what can start out as experimental use—to pump up for tests and try to earn better grades—can sometimes have serious negative effects.

What Are They?

Ritalin® and Adderall® are federally controlled drugs, due to their potential to be abused or lead to dependence when not used appropriately. These medications are stimulants, and according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “They elevate mood, increase feelings of well-being, and increase energy and alertness.” Adderall® and Ritalin® are used in the treatment of ADHD, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define as, “Significant impairment in inattentiveness, hyperactivity, or impulse control in at least two areas—such as home and school.” For students diagnosed with ADHD, and under the care of a physician, the drugs give them the ability to listen, focus, study, and retain information more easily, without jittery side effects.

Stimulants increase the levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, which is associated with pleasure, movement, and attention. When prescribed, doses start small and are increased gradually until a therapeutic effect is reached.

When used off-label, according to NIDA, they, “Increase brain dopamine in a highly amplified manner, disrupting normal communication between brain cells, producing euphoria, and increasing the risk of addiction.” Other stimulants include cocaine, methamphetamines, and MDMA (“Ecstasy”)—and these have similar profiles.

Some students think these drugs have the potential to help even those who don’t need them medically. According to 2012 research done at The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), two-thirds of those surveyed who said they started using “study drugs” in high school continue to do so in college, believing they enhance their concentration and focus, and result in better grades.

More of CASA’s Research Results

According to 2012 research done at The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA):
  • Twenty-four percent of the students surveyed said they know someone who’s selling prescription stimulants.
  • Eighty-six percent said they know someone who’s using them.
  • Two-thirds of those surveyed, who said they started using “study drugs” in high school, continue to do so in college.
  • Why? They believe the drugs enhance their concentration and focus, and result in better grades.
  • Non-prescription use of these drugs is up on college campuses by more than 90 percent since the survey first started in the early 1990’s.

How are students getting “study drugs” in the first place, if not prescribed? Some students who have prescriptions are selling their own doses to those who don’t. Others try to get the drugs any way they can, by faking symptoms with health care providers, or buying pills online from Internet pharmacies that don’t ask for a valid prescription.

Do They Offer an Academic Advantage?

Some think that using stimulants for studying has definite benefits. Mike B.*, a junior at a southern California university, says, “I don’t focus on anything else when I’m using [study drugs]. They make me dial in and buckle down, no socializing or distractions to deal with. I just get on with it until it’s done.”

Nate N.*, a recent graduate from New York University in Manhattan, says he dislikes the notion that Adderall®, used without a prescription, gives students an unfair advantage—especially on campuses like his where it’s openly talked about. When he was in school, he used it daily. “Study high, take the test high: get high scores. What’s [someone] going to do otherwise? Talk me into concentrating?” he asks.

Not all students agree. Deborah H.*, a student at a university in Dallas, says, “If we took the same classes, participated in the same amount of activities, and spent the same amount of time studying, is it fair that they got extra help and I didn’t because I wanted to stay honest?”

Not all students think that using stimulants for studying has definite benefits, nor that it’s fair. Many feel that unless someone needs these medications to treat a medical disorder, it’s not appropriate to use them.

Katherine M., a sophomore at Life University in Marietta, Georgia, says, “I believe that [these drugs] probably keep you focused, and most importantly, awake, too. But I don’t think it makes you smarter or more apt to remember the material.” Instead of turning to substances, she says, “Deep breaths and prayer help me a lot.”

What Are the Risks?

Students who are trying to cope with a full academic load, financial pressures, a whirling social life, and family obligations may be tempted to take “study drugs” without a prescription, but these can trigger hyperactivity, which may be perceived as productivity. In reality there may not be an increase in memory or retention of information.

Some students think that just because these stimulants can be used by prescription, they are safe for anyone to take, but this isn’t true. Dr. Raymond Kotwicki, a professor at Emory University’s School of Medicine, in Atlanta, Georgia, worries about students who take these drugs off-label. “They say they see Adderall® as slightly more dangerous than caffeinated soft drinks and nowhere near as dangerous as drinking beer or smoking,” he says.

These drugs, like other stimulants, can produce feelings of decreased appetite and wakefulness. Stimulants also elevate body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. They can also cause nausea, muscle spasms, confusion, and abnormal heart rhythms.

Dr. Kotwicki explains, “Temporarily they might make things easier, but in the long run, they can produce significant problems in thinking, mood, and functionality.”

Physical and Mental Effects of “Study Drugs”

These drugs, like other stimulants, can produce feelings of joy, decreased appetite, and wakefulness. You might notice:
  • Talkativeness
  • Higher energy
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Intense focus
Stimulants also elevate body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. They can cause:
  • Dilated pupils
  • Nausea
  • Blurred vision
  • Muscle spasms
  • Confusion
  • Narrowing of the blood vessels, which constricts blood flow
  • When the heart has to work harder than usual to move blood throughout the body, it can temporarily begin to beat with an abnormal rhythm, sometimes stopping the movement of blood.
If used repeatedly, a person may experience:
  • Cravings for the drug
  • Paranoia
  • Aggressiveness
  • Confusion
  • Complete loss of appetite (and therefore, inadequate eating)
  • Delusions and/or hallucinations
When taken in a large dose, or in combination with other drugs, stimulants can cause convulsions, stroke, heart attack, or death.

Tolerance (having to take more of a substance to get the same effect), dependence, and addiction are all possible outcomes of taking these drugs for their perceived study-related effects.

In a June 2012 interview in the New York Times, a 20-year-old college student describes, “My use of [a small amount of] Adderall® as a study aid, every so often, quickly escalated to [a large amount], daily—within six months of meeting a student who’d sell me his entire prescription. I finally got help for my addiction, but I had to take time off school to heal the damage I’d done to my brain chemistry.”

Legal and Integrity Issues

There can be other ramifications, too. It’s a crime to buy or use these medications without a prescription, and it’s also illegal to sell your own prescription. Students can not only face legal prosecution, but may also be violating student conduct guidelines that prohibit this type of behavior. On some campuses, using “study drugs” is a violation of the school’s academic code of honor. Plus, being arrested is not looked upon kindly by schools, nor by current or future employers.

For those students prescribed medications like Adderall® and Ritalin®, the drugs are a necessary support for reaching their academic goals. For others, the appeal of a quick fix for study stress may be understandable. But given the risks associated with “study drugs,” and the possibility that they give an unfair advantage to those taking them without a prescription, it is important to consider the perceived pros and very real cons they involve.

Taking care of yourself—by getting adequate study and rest time, using relaxation techniques, and taking other steps to enhance your health and mental resilience—can do more wonders for your grades than any drug ever could.

* Name changed for privacy.

Take Action!

  • If you have difficulty concentrating or other symptoms that interfere with your studies, talk with your health care provider.
  • Think about the physical, mental, legal, and other possible effects of “study drugs.”
  • Talk with your peers about whether you think these drugs create an advantage for students who take them without a prescription.
  • If you, or someone you know, is buying or selling “study drugs,” contact your school’s counseling center or another trusted resource for help.

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Get help or find out more
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Treatment Referral Helpline
1-800-662-HELP (4357)

Go Ask Alice!, Snorting Adderall and Ritalin

Do Something.org, Study Drugs: Why They Aren’t Helpful

Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD)
Hallowell, M.D., Edward M. and Ratey, M.D., John J. (2011). Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder, Anchor.

Mooney, Jonathan and Cole, David. (2000). Learning Outside the Lines: Two Ivy League Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD Give You the Tools for Academic Success and Educational Revolution, Touchstone.

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Lisa Ciarfella studies technical writing and is getting her english teaching credential at California State University, Long Beach.