A recent BU alum who asked not to be identified acknowledges that she sometimes takes Adderall, a prescription drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD). The alum, who has neither disorder, says she doesn’t often take the prescription drug, but uses it when she is faced with a major project. The drug helps focus mental attention and relieves fatigue.
She is one of a growing group of people, including up to 25 percent of all college students, according to a 2003 study published in the medical journal Addiction, who use Adderall illegally to improve cognitive performance, despite such medical risks as an increased likelihood of anxiety, high blood pressure, and even sexual impotence.
“It’s not for everyday usage, but for major academic things, it’s a huge help,” she says. “It keeps you awake in order to get everything done. When you take it, you study better, retain more information, and understand more complex ideas.”
A 2008 study of 1,200 college freshmen conducted by the Center for Substance Abuse Research found that Adderall was the most popular drug taken to increase mental performance, ahead of Ritalin. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, full-time college students were twice as likely as peers not enrolled in college to have used Adderall for nonmedical reasons. Adderall also suppresses appetite, so many students take it to lose weight.
People who have ADD or ADHD have an impairment of brain function that affects attention, explains Douglas Katz, a School of Medicine associate professor of neurology. “By improving the activity of these neurochemicals, people are able to focus and sustain functions to better task. If hyperactivity is part of the problem, these drugs seem to settle them down so they can focus, and their performance and attention seems to improve.”
Students report buying Adderall illegally for around $5 for a 20-milligram pill, often from other students who have a prescription for the drug. Some students even admit to studying, then feigning, the symptoms of ADD and ADHD to get a prescription.
Katz believes that most students who take Adderall as a study drug are unaware of its health risks. But because it is a stimulant, he says, it has a high potential for dependence or abuse and can also increase the risk of heart attack or stroke, anxiety, and headaches.
“Such substances are used illicitly on college campuses across the country, even though using such a stimulant can be dangerous to the individual,” says Liz Douglas, the University’s Alcohol and Drug Program coordinator at Student Health Services. “We encourage students to use only medications that are prescribed to them and to follow the prescriber’s instructions.”
SHS has a strict policy that students must provide documentation of testing, done within the past three years, indicating a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder, with or without hyperactivity, says psychiatrist Margaret Ross, director of SHS Behavioral Medicine. In addition to the testing, a diagnosis must be confirmed through a clinical interview before a student will be prescribed the medication by SHS. Students are also asked to sign an agreement that they will use the medication only as prescribed and work closely with the prescriber, and that they understand that selling medication, or sharing it, is illegal and can be reported to the police.
However, the two SHS staffers point out, medication is sometimes prescribed by other clinicians in other settings, without the requirement for formal testing. Ross recommends contacting Behavioral Medicine for information on places that offer psychological testing.
Medical experts suggest that students worried about focusing try something other than drugs. They recommend taking short breaks, exercising, and drinking plenty of water. And there’s always that old standby—the other stimulant, coffee.
In addition to the medical risks of taking Adderall without a prescription, there may be legal ramifications. Adderall is a Schedule II drug, along with PCP, oxycontin, and cocaine. Using Schedule II drugs without a prescription or selling them are state and federal crimes and can lead to expulsion from the University.
A BU senior, who also asked not be identified, says she used to take Adderall to help her study, but has stopped. “When I took it, I would focus better and be able to work for long spans of time without getting distracted, but I would also get super-jittery, have a decrease in appetite, and crave cigarettes,” she says. “There’s really no need for it. I just figured I should teach myself to focus instead of relying on a drug.”
Amy Laskowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.