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The Trends of Study Drugs in 2019

Table of Contents

The term study drug can refer to any substance a student takes to enhance their academic performance. Caffeine is a time-honored study drug around midterms and finals, as students cram all night for their exams.

Many study drugs are prescription medications, which usually are not prescribed to the student. Stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin became the most notorious study drugs in the 1990s and 2000s, but newer substances are beginning to take their place in 2019.

Substance Abuse Trends Among Adolescents and Young Adults

The Monitoring the Future Survey (MTF) for 2018 found that past-year substance abuse among adolescents, ranging from eighth to 12th grade, had declined to the lowest levels in the past two decades, with the exception of marijuana use.

Among high-school seniors, past-year illicit drug abuse, except marijuana, had declined as much as 30 percent over the previous five years. While marijuana abuse among adolescents has remained roughly the same for a decade, alcohol, nicotine, prescription, and illicit drug abuse rates had all declined. This includes the abuse of study drugs, or substances that are consumed to enhance academic performance.

A survey of students at the University of Texas found that 87 percent of those attending the college did not abuse study drugs, although caffeine was not one of the reported substances. However, a 2014 survey of college students at Ivy League schools in the United States found that 18 percent of sophomores, juniors, and seniors had intentionally abused a stimulant drug at some point in their academic career. In addition, 24 percent of these respondents reported that they had abused stimulants eight or more times while at school.

Students in another survey reported using study drugs to:

  • Improve academic performance (52 percent)
  • Stay up late or all night for academic reasons (49 percent)
  • Stay awake through class (33 percent)
  • Treat self-diagnosed ADD (attention deficit disorder) or ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) (29 percent)

While some believe this trend stops when they complete their academic coursework in high school or college, too often substance abuse continues into the workplace.

Prescription Stimulants and Attention Disorders

As more children began to receive a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD in the 1990s, elementary and middle-schoolers began receiving prescriptions for potent stimulant drugs to help them manage the symptoms. The two most famous of these medications were Ritalin, which is distantly related to methamphetamine with the main chemical ingredient of methylphenidate, and Adderall, with amphetamines as the main active ingredients.

Newer drugs are based on Ritalin and Adderall. Many children still have access to strong stimulant medications. Even though they need these prescriptions to help them with behavioral struggles, they may not know how to manage them responsibly.

ADD and ADHD have common symptoms, including:

  • Trouble with paying attention
  • Intense physical energy and being physically overactive (hyperactivity)
  • Impulsivity, or acting without thinking about the consequences

While students with ADD or ADHD benefit from a combination of prescription stimulants (with doses managed by overseeing doctors) and behavioral therapy, the peers of children receiving these stimulants do not see the whole process. What their peers see is a sudden improvement in academic and behavioral performance. They may mistake the drug as the cause of this improvement.

Abuse of Prescription Stimulants

Commonly abused stimulant drugs include:

  • Adderall
  • Ritalin
  • Concerta
  • Vyvanse
  • Focalin

One of the most common ways that students acquire these stimulant drugs is by purchasing them or asking for them from friends who have ADD or ADHD. More rarely, a student may lie about inattention or impulsivity to a doctor to get a prescription, or they may steal them from a friend or family member.

Increasingly, stimulant drugs are being purchased through illicit websites. This puts a student at great risk, as they may get a substance that is not at all what they thought they purchased.

If a student gets a drug like Adderall or Concerta from someone they know who has a prescription, taking these drugs does not enhance performance. While some earlier medical studies suggest that stimulant drugs can help with long-term conscious memory, like recalling past events, they do not help improve procedural or implicit memory, which includes learning new things like how to ride a bicycle. This means there are mixed results for improved writing and studying skills, along with mixed information on executive functions like planning.

The drugs may also negatively impact one’s ability to generate data sets, like a series of words starting with the same letter. Changing this type of recall can decrease academic performance, not enhance it.

Nootropics, Misused Prescriptions, and Herbal Supplements

More U.S. adults are beginning to abuse drugs called nootropics to enhance memory and cognitive performance. There is little evidence that these barely legal, little-understood drugs improve one’s thinking or learning.

Drugs that are abused to enhance academic or cognitive performance among students and young professionals include: 

  • Modafinil. This medication is a stimulant approved for treating daytime sleepiness in people who have narcolepsy, but it has no other approved uses. However, “brain hackers” have been taking this medication off-label, or by purchasing it online, to improve cognitive function.

    Early, small studies suggested that healthy individuals could improve their working memory and planning ability by taking modafinil, which has led it to be one of the most abused study drugs, especially among college students. Long-term abuse of modafinil has been shown to reduce brain plasticity, which can be detrimental to brain function later in life
  • Aniracetam and piracetam. The “racetam” family of drugs is believed to reduce anxiety and enhance creativity, but this is based on one 2012 study in which a group of people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) experienced boosts in cognitive performance. MCI symptoms included forgetfulness, problems with language, judgment, or planning that were measurable beyond age-related brain changes.

    There are serious anecdotal side effects associated with these substances, including jaw tension, vertigo, anxiety, and nausea
  • Ashwagandha. This herbal supplement is advertised to improve focus and calm anxiety, but very few controlled studies suggest this barely regulated pill can help. Because it has some stimulant properties, it appears more likely to irritate stomach ulcers and impact thyroid disorders
  • Donepezil (Aricept). This drug is believed to improve memory and the ability to complete complex tasks in Alzheimer’s patients. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved donepezil only for prescription use in people with this specific form of dementia. Taking it off-label or even illicitly will most likely lead to appetite loss, vomiting, and insomnia
  • L-deprenyl (selegiline hydrochloride). This is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), which is a class of drugs typically used in treating depression and early stages of Parkinson’s disease. These medications boost mood and attention by regulating how much dopamine is available in the brain.

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In people who have no chemically based reason to increase dopamine bioavailability, effects are more likely to include intense euphoria, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of stroke. There are also serious side effects when MAOIs are mixed with some types of foods and beverages as well as prescription or recreational substances.

Safer Ways to Study and Improve Academic Performance

A doctor can diagnose you with a condition, like ADHD, and provide you with the appropriate prescription medication to help you manage symptoms, which will improve your overall life, including learning, memory, and thinking. This does not mean you are abusing drugs to enhance your academic performance.

However, if you do not have a medical condition that necessitates a prescription to manage symptoms, there is no reason to take a substance to study. Other study habits can be cultivated, like studying a little at a time, taking reasonable breaks, getting enough sleep, and finding healthy ways to manage stress, like exercise and balanced eating habits.

Abusing stimulant drugs or unregulated supplements is a form of drug misuse, which can lead to addiction. These chemicals can change your brain chemistry so much that you will experience more immediate stress in the short term. You will feel imbalanced, which will make studying, writing papers, and taking tests harder.

If you abuse these drugs regularly because you think you need them, you may struggle with addiction. Talk to a counselor or doctor for a diagnosis and referral to addiction treatment.

Sources

(December 2018). Monitoring the Future Survey: High School and Youth Trends. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/monitoring-future-survey-high-school-youth-trends

Study Drugs. University Health Services, University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved March 2019 from https://healthyhorns.utexas.edu/studydrugs.html

Study Drugs. University Health Services, University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved March 2019 from https://healthyhorns.utexas.edu/studydrugs.html

(February 13, 2019). Students Turn to Study Drugs and Alcohol to Cope with Campus Life. Forbes. Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorrison/2019/02/13/students-turn-to-study-drugs-and-alcohol-to-cope-with-campus-life/#488757b847d3

(2016). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): The Basics. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd-the-basics/index.shtml

(October 29, 2013). Ritalin. Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR). Retrieved March 2019 from http://www.cesar.umd.edu/cesar/drugs/ritalin.asp

from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3666194/

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