Study buddies. Smart drugs. Brain steroids. College students have a lot of names for the illegal stimulants that at least 16 percent of them take when it’s time to cram for an exam or finish a term paper by morning.

If you use these drugs, or think they’re safe and effective, you’re not alone. In a 2018 survey of 8,039 undergraduates from across the US, over a quarter said they thought using stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin without a prescription would improve their grades. Another 38 percent were unsure, thinking the drugs might have that effect. In other research, 38 percent of college-age young adults said using them regularly was safe.

Since there is so much misinformation about these stimulants, we’ve highlighted the big four misconceptions to shine a light on what should be called study saboteurs instead of study buddies.

Myth: Stimulants Make You Smarter, Like Brain Vitamins

Fact: Study drugs can interfere with getting your work done–and with acing tomorrow’s exam.

“Study buddy” pills can betray you. Instead of boosting academic success by sharpening your concentration, alertness, memory, and thinking skills, the drugs may worsen short-term memory and leave you jittery and distracted. In a recent experiment at Brown University students who didn’t have ADHD took a dose of Adderall or a placebo, and then were tested on their thinking skills, reaction-time, and emotional state.

The Adderall group felt smarter—their moods soared and their focus got a little sharper. But they didn’t perform any better on tests that mimic what you’d have to do to write a term paper or cram for a final exam, such as reading comprehension, reading ease, and working memory. In fact, working memory–the facts you need to hold in your short-term memory as you solve a math problem or figure out how to conjugate verbs in a foreign language–got a little bit worse.

Other research has found that in people without ADHD, stimulants could make you feel more keyed-up and impulsive, making it even more difficult settling down to read 60 pages of organic chemistry or English literature.

In fact, the grade point average of students who misuse stimulants is lower than it is for students who don’t take them. When University of Maryland researchers compared the GPA of 898 undergraduates over three years, they found that grades dropped for those who used study drugs while grades improved for those who stopped using them – and for those who never started in the first place.

The conclusion? There is little to no benefit to cognitive performance associated with prescription stimulants when administered to individuals who do not have a diagnosis of ADHD. You’re better off signing up with a tutor or taking advantage of other study-support options at your college.

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Myth: They’re Prescription Drugs, So They Must Be Safe

Fact: Side effects range from unpleasant to dangerous.

Like fentanyl, OxyContin, cocaine and morphine, ADHD stimulants are considered Schedule 2 drugs by the US Drug Enforcement Agency due to their strong potential for addiction and abuse. Taken under a doctor’s guidance, they’re considered safe, but when used illegally they aren’t.

While nearly two in five college-age young adults think there’s nothing risky about using them regularly without a prescription, they’re wrong. The side effect list is pretty long: irregular heartbeats, increased blood pressure, restlessness, anxiety, nervousness, paranoia, headache, dizziness, insomnia, dry mouth, loss of appetite, diarrhea, constipation and even impotence.

Trips to the emergency room for misuse of these stimulants rose for young adults between 2006 and 2011, according to a recent study of national ER data published in the journal Clinical Psychiatry. Calls to Poison Control Center hotlines for emergencies caused by illegal use of these drugs also rose 76 percent.  Most of the ER visits were for repeat users; many involved alcohol or other illicit or prescription drugs as well, according to lead researcher lead researcher Lian-Yu Chen, M.D., PhD, now an Assistant Professor at Institute of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, National Taiwan University.

Stimulants taken without a medical reason can disrupt brain communication according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. When used improperly or in excess, in addition to all of those side effects, they can cause mood swings and loss of sleep and can increase your blood pressure and heart rate, too.

Myth: Adderall or Other Stimulants Are Not Addictive

Fact: Yes, they are.

One in 12 young adults who use stimulants without a prescription say they’ve used them between ten and more than fifty times in the past year, a national survey from 2018 finds. Other researchers think up to half are frequent users. “Data from our group and others are showing that 10-15 percent of college students actually have a stimulant use disorder,” notes Timothy Wilens, MD, chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children (MGHfC) and a researcher who’s looked closely at the non-prescription use of stimulants in college students.

Two troubling trends that may accompany addiction and addiction risk: Forty percent of users grind up and snort short-acting stimulants for a fast high–a practice called insufflation. And many take extremely high doses, perhaps unaware of the doses a young adult with ADHD might take. Instead of 10-20 milligrams of Adderall, for example, they may use 60 or 100 milligrams, Wilens says.

Myth: If You Have ADHD, It’s OK To Selling Pills

Truth: That’s illegal…and could hurt your friends.

Yes, plenty of students do it—about eight out of ten college students who use them illegally get them from a friend or someone they know. But that can be dangerous for them and it’s illegal for both of you. Selling your pills could mean criminal penalties and jail time.

Keep pills locked up someplace private and tell friends who want to try or buy your pills that you only have enough for yourself.

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Last Updated: Jan 10, 2020