With widespread unemployment and large numbers of recent graduates returning to their parents’ homes to save money, the pressure to receive excellent grades in college continues to mount. Students see a 4.0 GPA as a ticket to a better job or career success.
For many students, the temptation to use drugs to improve their academic performance is too much to resist. Rates of illicit prescription drug use to boost academic functioning continues to rise, leading to a boom in the illegal trade of Adderall, Ritalin, and other prescription drugs.
What Drugs Enhance Academic Performance
In recent years, the scientific community has become keenly interested in developing drugs to enhance cognitive performance. There is an ongoing ethical debate in the field of medicine and psychology about using such drugs to improve IQ, become more effective at work, or stimulate high-achieving academic performance. To date, there are two main drugs used by college students to boost their academic functioning: methylphenidate (also known as Ritalin) and amphetamine salts (Adderall).
Both Ritalin and Adderall are commonly prescribed to individuals diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. These drugs act as stimulants, which helps people with ADHD focus their attention and perform more effectively. At a neurobiological level, these drugs increase the number of signaling molecules passing between brain cells. This improves the ability of the brain’s memory structures to talk to its decision-making structures. The result is improved focus and ability to engage in everyday thinking tasks.
Although millions of individuals with ADHD take Ritalin or Adderall to improve their attention, this has led to a black market of healthy adults without attention difficulties experimenting with the drugs. When taken by a healthy person without ADHD, Ritalin or Adderall results in hyperfocus. Some people report being able to focus on work very intently for hours, while others note that they have increased awareness of careless mistakes.
For college students intent on getting good grades, these effects can be invaluable. Rather than slogging through hours at the library, a person can pop a pill to focus on a term paper and finish more quickly. However, using Ritalin or Adderall for off-label purposes can have negative effects on health and wellbeing.
Ritalin and Adderall are Schedule II Drugs
Despite being prescribed for ADHD, Ritalin and Adderall have potentially dangerous effects. The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies these drugs as Schedule II substances (Schedule I are considered most dangerous, with a high potential for addiction). Other Schedule II substances include cocaine, Oxycontin, and methamphetamine.
What does this mean for college students using drugs to improve their grades? Being labeled as a Schedule II substance means that Ritalin and Adderall have a relatively high likelihood of resulting in abuse or addiction. Over time, taking these drugs causes the brain’s structure to change. As a result, the body comes to crave the drugs and need them for regular functioning. Someone who took Ritalin only before studying for an exam might find that she needs to take it more regularly to feel normal. Requiring an increased dose of the drug to get the desired effect is a sign of addiction, as is experiencing withdrawal symptoms when the drug has not been taken lately.
Side Effects of Using Drugs for Cognitive Enhancement
As with all drugs, Ritalin and Adderall have a profile of potential side effects. Individuals who take the drug may experience nervousness, irritability, headaches, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, loss of appetite, difficulties sleeping regularly, and weight loss. Other effects may be more dangerous. Irregularities in heartbeat, twitching or shaking, vision changes, or seizures may sometimes occur. Because Ritalin and Adderall act as stimulants, they can profoundly affect heart functioning and may even result in a heart attack.
Also worrisome are the effects of these drugs on mental health. Ritalin and Adderall prevent the body from recognizing that it is tired, which may significantly disrupt a person’s sleep schedule. This may trigger episodes of depressed mood, major irritability, or dramatic mood swings. In some cases, people have experienced psychotic episodes after taking these stimulant medications.
Many college students underestimate the risks of taking prescription stimulants but soon find themselves needing professional help to cope with addiction or severe side effects.