Do study drugs improve academic performance?

Bleary-eyed and barely functioning, the struggle to stay awake and focused on their studies have plagued college and high school students across the country. However, in recent years, the solution to staying on task has been found in a potentially threatening form: study drugs.

The use of prescription drugs by non-prescribed patients is primarily misused to improve cognitive abilities or in other words, allow the user to stay awake and focused on the task.

According to the study “Cognitive Enhancement” done at the University of Pennsylvania, there exists three classes of drugs with cognitive enhancement potential: stimulants, acetylcholinesterase inhibitors and Modafinil. While most prescription abuse occurs within the stimulant class with drugs such as Adderall or Ritalin, some misuse and abuse acetylcholinesterase inhibitors and Modafinil, the two other cognitive enhancers which are used to treat conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to narcolepsy.

The stimulants Adderall and Ritalin are commonly used to treat patients with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They are also commonly abused by students who opt to pop a pill instead of finding other ways to stay awake and focused.

In a fast-paced society where everything is written in 140 characters and watched in less than six seconds, it comes as no surprise that many are so ready to self-diagnose themselves with ADHD. However, the actual process to properly diagnosing ADHD and receiving the necessary medical attention requires several steps. According to Dr. Janine Rosenberg, Director of the Hyperactivity, Attention and Learning Problems (HALP) Clinic at the University of Illinois at Chicago, sometimes even mild symptoms of ADHD shouldn’t be treated with medication right away.

“All kids might be inattentive and hyperactive, with varying levels of severity in certain settings,” Dr. Rosenberg said. “[The HALP clinic] wants to be able to teach them strategies [to treat certain symptoms] rather than have medication to mask or fix [the problem] temporarily.”

As a licensed psychologist, Dr. Rosenberg strongly recommends considering behavioral modifications before opting to use medication, especially when the patients present mild symptoms at a young age. For those who are not properly prescribed the medication, Dr. Rosenberg believes taking it is a gamble.

“[Adderall] is an enhancer and it’s going to make you alert [at first],”  Dr. Rosenberg said. “Because of long term impacts, after a while, [the drug] stops working, or it is not the same as it used to feel. There are too many negatives to have that one little pro that you think you’re going to get.”

The long term effects of said prescription abuse involves irritability, changes in mood and personality, insomnia, anxiety and suppressed appetite. In fact, the “Cognitive Enhancement” study also found that for non-ADHD adults, the use of stimulants can actually impair performance of tasks that require adaptation, flexibility and planning.

Adaptation, flexibility and planning are tasks crucial to surviving in a learning environment such as college. While some students find healthy ways to adjust to the demands from their university, some cave under the pressure and find it necessary to medicate themselves in order to educate themselves. In an attempt to combat prescription misuse and abuse in college campuses, several universities have created health initiatives that encourage students to “study natural.”

In the early 2000s, Dr. Kenneth Hale, Co-Director of the The Generation Rx Initiative at the College of Pharmacy at the Ohio State University, noticed that there was a growing trend in prescription drug misuse and overdose. With a background in pharmacy and education, he decided to launch the Generation Rx Initiative to see what could be done to solve that problem.

While the cognitive enhancers are typically referred to as study drugs, Hale likes to think of them as “study crutches.” Instead of being able to truly learn the material, students compensate procrastination and cramming with pharmaceutical agents.

“Honestly, I see no data that convinces me that they are enhancers,” Hale said. “There is no good data that helps prove that [study drugs help students learn] long term.”

Hale points to the study “The Academic Opportunity Costs Of Substance Used During College” from the University of Maryland, College Park for further issues regarding taking study drugs. According to the study, students who missed class and chose to use performance enhancing drugs had lower grade point averages. Along with decreased academic performance, the study also unveiled that students are less motivated to engage in class, which ultimately leads to a poorer understanding of the material.

Since 2007, Generation Rx Initiative has been designed to educate elementary schools, teenagers, college students and even senior citizens on medication safety and to raise awareness on prescription misuse. With toolkits ranging from presentation slides to workbook activities, the Generation Rx Initiative tries to find the easiest ways to educate and inform others.

“We are working hard, but there is still a lot of work to be done,” Hale said. “We know that there are a lot of misconceptions that still exist. For example, teens in particular think that [Adderall and Ritalin] are safer to abuse because they are legal or that they believe that they are not addictive. Our efforts try to bust some of those myths and emphasize the importance of staying informed.”

As the Generation Rx Initiative continually grows, other colleges have also set up similar programs. At the University of Texas at Austin’s Health Services department, the “HealthyHorns” launched a “Study Natural” campaign in order to reduce the misuse of prescription drugs. Since then, the university reports that 87 percent of students don’t use study drugs.

While a temporary solution may seem appealing at 2 a.m with little sleep and a huge exam the next day, there are healthier options available for students.

At the Academic Skills Center at Dartmouth College, students and professors have compiled several study guides that aim to help students develop healthy studying habits. From creating a comfortable study environment to tips on how to retain information, the program’s absence of pharmaceutical agents clearly proves that healthy alternatives exists.

Amid the stress of senior year, Fenia Kaparos ’15 is one student that still finds healthy ways to study. Using a “rewards system” method, she finds studying to be easier once she has established a quiet, distraction-free area.

“I find that the hardest part [of studying] is getting the motivation to sit down and actually study,” Kaparos said. “I give myself a goal, and once I finish that goal, I take a break. I try to sit down for 45 minutes to an hour to review a topic. Once I’m done, I’ll check my phone or get myself a snack. Afterwards, I’ll put everything else away and go back to focus again for another 45 minutes to an hour.”

Along with the “rewards system,” Kaparos organizes her studies to her personal priorities. Since her intended major will require math and science courses, she spends more time studying for them as opposed to other classes.

“I think it’s unhealthy to use prescription drugs because that is not a method that will help teach you how to focus. Once you lean off [the drugs],you go into the real world without having the skills needed to build your own routine because you were dependent on a substance that made your decisions,” Kaparos said. “Once you become independent, you need to have a sense of judgment.”