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Popular Study Drugs Pose Special Risks for Young Brains

Unaware of the consequences, students often use stimulants to boost their academic performance.

Stimulant drugs, or “smart drugs,” may provide a short-term mental boost for college students looking to ace their finals, but misusing these drugs can cause long-term harm to the brain, according to a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience.

Illegally taking stimulant prescription drugs, such as Ritalin, has grown more popular among college and high-school students who are trying to meet strict academic requirements, keep up in an increasingly competitive job market, and cope with the pressure to become successful, the researchers said. According to the study’s press release, “more than one million American students misuse prescription drugs or take illegal stimulants to increase attention span, memory, and capacity to stay awake.”  

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The lasting side effects of taking these drugs include impairments in working memory, multitasking ability, and attentional flexibility—“skills that become very important in the workforce and managing the many demands and stressors of modern adult life,” said study author Kimberly Urban, Ph.D., in an interview with Healthline.

“These medications have been developed to treat specific illnesses, and are well suited for that intended purpose,” Urban said. “However, because they were developed to treat illnesses, they may have very different effects on healthy brains.”

“A short-term bump in studying prowess, or a bit more energy, or a slightly better grade in a class are not worth risking permanent damage to the brain,” Urban added.

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Stimulants and Their Effect on the Developing Brain

In this study, researchers focused on three types of stimulant drugs: methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta), modafinil (Provigil), and ampakines.

“Ritalin is particularly interesting because it is one of the most commonly prescribed medications for children,” Urban said. “There had been no work attempted to examine how this drug might affect a normal young brain, even though it is often abused and prescribed with increasing ease and frequency. So we decided to examine on a cellular basis the possible effects on normal, adolescent brains.”

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Methylphenidate, used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is one of the most common drugs misused by young people and sold on the black market, the researchers said. According to survey results released by Drugfree.org and MetLife Foundation, about 1.9 million teens report having misused stimulants, including Ritalin, in the past year, and 1.3 million report having misused Ritalin or other stimulants in the past month. Trials on rats have shown that methylphenidate is particularly damaging when the brain is still developing. 

Modafinil, a treatment for narcolepsy and other sleep disorders that works by promoting wakefulness, is another popular "smart drug." The drug raises dopamine levels in the brain and can improve pattern-recognition memory, number recall, and the ability to solve mathematical problems, researchers said.  However, if abused, it can cause long-term impairments similar to those caused by methylphenidate.

While not yet FDA-approved, ampakines are a new class of drugs currently being investigated as treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, Rett syndrome, schizophrenia, depression, autism and Angelman syndrome. These drugs have also been studied by the U.S. military to enhance alertness for soldiers in high-stress, extended-combat situations, the study authors said.

“Doses of ampakines given to humans thus far have been tightly controlled,” they wrote. “If the drug became available as a cognitive enhancer, or reached the black market, individuals could easily exceed safe doses and suffer neuronal damage from glutamate toxicity.”

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Is Taking 'Smart Drugs' Cheating?

With the increasing popularity of these drugs among high-school and college students, researchers have begun not only considering the long-term effects of these medications, but also questioning whether taking such drugs to enhance cognitive ability is considered cheating.

According to a study presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, about one in five students at an Ivy League college reported using stimulant drugs, such as Adderall, for academic purposes, and one-third of those students said they did not consider it cheating.

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The study showed that 69 percent of Ivy League college students who used stimulants took them to write an essay, 66 percent took smart drugs to help them study for an exam, and 27 percent said they took the drugs right before taking a test.

However, only about 40 percent of these students said they believed taking stimulants to enhance performance was unethical, about 30 percent did not see it as a form of cheating, and 25 percent were unsure, according to the press release.

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Students’ Take on Using 'Smart Drugs'

Kevin Palmer, a senior at New Mexico State University, said he took Adderall once to get through finals.

“About three hours after taking it, I had written an eight-page paper, which is extremely fast for me,” Palmer said in an interview with Healthline.  

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“I think it's just like any other drug or vice where too much of something can be a bad thing,” Palmer said. “I think most of the students using it in this way are usually trying to make up for their lack of effort earlier in their semesters. Of course in some cases, it really is a matter of competition to get the ‘A,’ and you do what it takes.”

A recent graduate from the University of Texas (UT), who wishes to remain anonymous, also shared his opinion.

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“Every semester during finals I would take Adderall for a couple nights of studying,” he said. “I tried Ritalin and liked it, but it didn't help clear my exam stress. Adderall helped me focus a lot. I could go hours and hours reading and memorizing flash cards for courses I knew would never benefit me in the future.”

The UT graduate said he took stimulants because he lacked the motivation to study something he didn’t care about and that he didn’t see anything wrong with the practice.

"During the time they were extremely necessary for the type of stress and studying that came with college exams,” he said.

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How to Bring About Change

Urban said that—in order to keep adolescents off smart drugs—more stringent, reliable diagnostic criteria for determining who suffers from cognitive disorders like ADHD needs to be established.

“These medications should likely be a final resort and not the first course of treatment sought,” Urban said. “We are not clinicians, however, and cannot detail exactly how a diagnosis should be made.”

“We also need to educate young people on the risks of abusing these drugs, and teach them the skills needed to critically evaluate research into these drugs so that they can make informed decisions for themselves,” she said.  

As for future research, Urban said a wide variety of studies, cognitive tests, and experiments with animal models are still needed.

“The understanding of how these drugs act in young brains versus adult brains is still very rudimentary, and is a very large gap in the research and scientific knowledge that needs to be addressed by multiple teams with many different skills and areas of expertise if we  are to discover the  exact risks and benefits of these drugs,” she said. 

Learn More About Stimulant Medications and Kids »

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