Nicknamed “study drugs” or “brain steroids”, prescription stimulants have become popular among students who hope they will help them focus on their studies for longer.
Although they are not a new phenomenon – students have been documented taking similar stimulants since 1937 – there is a concern that their misuse is growing rapidly among those under pressure to achieve good grades at the same time as enjoying a vibrant social life. Studies into the use of stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin suggest that they are being used by 5 to 34 per cent of higher education students in the US.
Doctors often prescribe such stimulants to adolescents diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), to help them concentrate for longer and to stop hyperactive symptoms such as fidgeting.
“Students with ADHD have described to me how [studying with the aid of stimulants] is very different,” said Amelia Arria, director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland. “Almost like how prescription glasses can improve vision; but only if you need glasses.
“It’s a bad idea to take any kind of prescription drug without having physician supervision.”
Students who engage in the non-medical use of prescription stimulants (NPS) have also been shown to miss more lectures and seminars and attain lower marks, suggesting that the use of NPS could be a “last ditch attempt” to lift grades from bad to passable. However, stimulants’ ability to help students improve their grades had previously not been studied in a real-world setting.
“Our research suggests that the lower grades are linked to marijuana use and heavy drinking, which overlaps substantially with NPS,” said Dr Arria. “NPS is a red flag or marker for other substance use, and perhaps [a] more serious level of substance use involvement that is related to…academic disengagement.”
In a study published in Addictive Behaviors, Dr Arria and her colleagues followed 898 US undergraduates – none diagnosed with ADHD – during the final year of their degrees. The cohort included four groups: “abstainers” (who did not use stimulants), “persistors” (who did use stimulants),“initiators” (who began using stimulants in their final year) and “desistors” (who stopped before their final year). A third of the students reported using NPS.
The researchers found that abstainers significantly improved their grades in the final year of their degree, while students who used stimulants saw no change in their results. The academic benefit of NPS is “likely illusory”, the authors conclude.
“We believe NPS is a shortcut; when students are struggling academically and skipping class they engage in NPS because they believe it might help them with an exam or a paper,” Dr Arria said. “But it's maladaptive, because that strategy doesn't seem to work.”