University of Pennsylvania
College is nearly unanimously viewed as some of the most fun and vibrant days of a person’s life. For the most part, that holds true, except during finals season. Finals at the end of a semester or quarter are the only time in the year where an entire campus slows down and stress washes over everyone. In this stressful and workload intensive environment, a quick fix to help plow through material becomes very enticing to many people. Students across the country and world are increasingly turning towards ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, or Dexedrine in order give themselves an extra boost to get the scores that they want; however, students often make these choices without considering how these “study” drugs really work and what adverse effects might occur with extended usage.
HOW DOES THE DRUG WORK?
The prescription drugs were designed to counteract the symptoms of ADHD by working as stimulants for the brain. Although Adderall, Ritalin, Dexedrine, and other ADHD medications have slightly different mechanisms, they all act in generally the same way— stimulation, which can be elucidated by a closer look at amphetamines such as Adderall, the most popular treatment option for ADHD.1 Adderall is a mix of multiple stereoisomers of amphetamine, a stimulant that is also chemically similar to dangerous recreational drugs such as ecstasy and methamphetamine, otherwise known as ‘meth’. The amphetamine molecules in Adderall are very similar to the neurotransmitter family of catecholamines, allowing them to elicit neural response.2 Catecholamines, such as dopamine, act in areas of the brain that control arousal and emotion, allowing for spikes in feelings of reward and euphoria when present. Other hormones also fall into the family of Catecholamines such as the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine govern our fight or flight response as well as feelings of nervousness or excitement. Adderall simulates all of these sensations by binding to dopamine and norepinephrine receptors in the brain, simulating their presence. It also further enhances its effects by plugging transporters that normally remove the above catecholamines when a response is finished, allowing the stimulation to remain for an extended period.3 This ultimately allows for a sustained feeling of euphoria, even while studying. The sense of focus that the drug affords is rooted in this extended euphoria. The euphoria renders distractions such as browsing Facebook or watching a video obsolete since the brain is already stimulated from the drug, allowing a person to fully focus on one task when normally periodic distractions would be required in order to cause chemical release in the brain.
WHAT ARE THE SIDE EFFECTS?
However, just as with most drugs, there are significant side-effects as well. The sudden arousal and crash cycles often lead to prolonged and excessive usage of the drug as it can be addictive. A significant reason behind its addictive capabilities is purely psychological. When students continually pop pills in order to enhance efficiency while studying, they may eventually form a psychological dependence to the drug as they start to believe that they cannot focus at all without its effects, changing it from an optional boost into a dire necessity. All of this is not to say that Adderall is considered a highly addictive substance as studies have generally demonstrated little evidence that this is the case, despite Adderall’s near chemical congruence to methamphetamine. The extended usage of amphetamines can cause insomnia and anxiety, with extreme cases even causing moderate psychosis. Furthermore, Adderall also causes increases in heart rate and blood pressure, which can be dangerous for people with other medical conditions.4 On top of its immediate effects, drug interactions with other medications can also lead to severe complications.
addiction, anxiety & insomnia, and increased heart rate & blood pressure are all possible side effects
With availability increasing every year, study drugs are becoming more of a flagrant issue. A study done in 2012 showed that approximately one-third of college students use study drugs nonmedically, and that number is growing from year to year.5 Universities are continually looking for solutions to the problem; however, it is nearly impossible to completely control a substance abuse issue as can be seen with the United States’ War on Drugs throughout popular media. Ultimately, the dilemma boils down to whether or not an individual decides to use any kind of study drug, and being scientifically aware of the consequences is the only real solution.
Siddha Ramesh is a Psychology major at the University of Pennsylvania. He currently performs research on Alzheimer's disease.
 Turning Attention To ADHD: U.S. Medication Trends for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Express Scripts. 2014.
 Berman, S. M.; Kuczenski, R.; Mccracken, J. T.; London, E. D. Potential Adverse Effects of Amphetamine Treatment on Brain and Behavior: a Review. Molecular Psychiatry Mol Psychiatry. 2010, 1121–1121.
 Lakhan, S. E.; Kirchgessner, A. Prescription Stimulants in Individuals with and without Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Misuse, Cognitive Impact, and Adverse Effects. Brain Behav Brain and Behavior. 2012, 661–677.
 Sussman, S.; Pentz, M.; Spruijt-Metz, D.; Miller, T. Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, And Policy. Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy. 2006, 15–15.
 Garnier-Dykstra, L. M.; Caldeira, K. M.; Vincent, K. B.; O’Grady, K. E.; Arria, A. M. Nonmedical Use Of Prescription Stimulants During College: Four-Year Trends in Exposure Opportunity, Use, Motives, and Sources. Journal of American College Health. 2012, 226–234.