Young adults are abusing Adderall and other prescription stimulants at a rate that's alarming public health experts. Part of the reason for the trend seems to be a belief that these drugs are relatively harmless "study aids" that enhance focus and cognitive stamina.
But that common misconception has consequences, especially for people in the 18 to 25 age bracket. A 2016 study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that "non-prescribed use of Adderall" for this group increased 67 percent, and related emergency room visits shot up 156 percent, from 2006 to 2011.
Dr. Shaheen Lakhan, a neurologist who has studied the effects of prescription stimulant use, spoke to ATTN: about what using these drugs does to your brain and body.
ATTN: How does using prescription stimulants affect people who take the medication as prescribed?
Shaheen Lakhan: Prescription stimulants enhance classroom manageability and increase attention and academic productivity in children. Prescription stimulants may increase the quality of note taking, scores on quizzes and worksheets, writing output, and homework completion. Intuitively, it would seem logical that drugs that improve attention and concentration should also promote learning and academic achievement.
ATTN: What's a common misconception college students might have about these drugs?
SL: Inherent in terms like "cognitive enhancers," "smart drugs," and "neuroenhancers" is the assumption that these stimulants enhance cognition. Although stimulants may improve an individual's performance when given a rote-learning task, they do not offer as much help to people with greater intellectual abilities. Stimulants do not increase IQ. Thus, the rumored effects of "smart drugs" may be a false promise, as research suggests that stimulants are more effective at correcting deficits than "enhancing performance."
ATTN: What are the risks of taking prescription stimulants if you're using it as prescribed?
SL: If taking prescription stimulants on a chronic basis as prescribed, the risk is minimal. Since the drug acts on the dopamine system, there are reports on stimulant-induced psychosis including visual hallucinations, delusions, anorexia, flattening of affect [and] mood, and insomnia.
ATTN: What about when a person is using the drug off-prescription, in excessive doses, for example?
SL: The most commonly observed cardiovascular effects linked with ADHD stimulant medications include hypertension and tachycardia. Adderall use is associated with myocardial infarction and even sudden death. Some recent literature also shows that long-term use of stimulants increased heart rate. The effect on heart rate may be clinically significant for individuals who have underlying heart conditions.
ATTN: I think most college students understand that Adderall misuse causes loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping. What are some side effects that recreational users might not be aware of?
SL: In addition to anorexia and insomnia, stimulants may cause abdominal pain, constipation, dizziness, dry mouth, headache, jitteriness, irritability, nausea, and palpitations. College students with ADHD who misuse prescribed stimulants also reported hyperactivity symptoms as a common adverse event.