Study: Students abuse ADHD medicine

More college students abuse these drugs for studying than recreation.
Megan Stroup / Graphic Designer

A study by an Australian researcher has found more students are using prescription medications to increase their studying abilities and suggests students might one day be tested for performance-enhancing drugs in the same way as athletes.

Vince Cakic, a research assistant at the University of Sydney in Australia who authored the paper, said healthy students seeking to boost their grades are increasingly turning to prescription drugs, which are also called "nootropics."

"Current nootropics offer only modest improvements in cognitive performance," Cakic said in the paper. "It appears likely that more effective compounds will be developed in the future and that their off-label use will increase."

Cakic's paper said performance-enhancing drugs might create an uneven playing field but said unfair advantages, such as income level and access to better schools and materials, are already widespread and accepted by society. He said enforcement against use of nootropics by universities would be unlikely.

In the U.S., Cakic found the more commonly abused substances were medications used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, such as Ritalin and Adderall.

MU Associate Provost Michael Prewitt, who is also the director of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, said MU has no disciplinary policy directly related to students using prescription drugs for academic purposes. He said the school does have policies against students possessing medications for which they do not have a prescription, but said it would be difficult to determine who was simply trying to get an advantage.

"I'm not sure the faculty are able to always recognize if a student is intoxicated, if the student isn't showing any outward signs or being disruptive in the class," Prewitt said. "It's awfully hard to separate abuse from a situation where they have a prescription."

Teddi Fishman, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity based in Clemson, S.C., said universities would face difficulties separating students who were using the medications correctly from the abusers without invading someone's privacy.

"If students use chemicals that improve their academic performance in ways that are medically indicated and safe, we don't have a problem," Fishman said. "But if they're using them for short-term enhancement, like a single night of studying that isn't related to learning but simply for testing purposes, that's a problem."

Lisa Weyandt, a University of Rhode Island psychology professor, had previously studied the non-medical use of such stimulants and said about 7 percent of U.S. college students reported misusing prescription stimulants.

She said abuse has risen as stimulants become more common on college campuses as more students are diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed them. The increase in abuse has also made it more acceptable, she said.

"We've found that students who don't have ADHD were using these drugs by smoking them, snorting them and in some cases even injecting it," Weyandt said. "It's definitely being abused."

MU associate professor of psychology Matthew Martens said non-prescription abuse of such drugs could increase a student's risk for developing addictions later in life.

"It's not a one-to-one relationship, but research has shown that the earlier people use drugs and alcohol, the more likely they are to develop problems with those substances," Martens said. "But there are many other factors that contribute to risk for serious alcohol and drug problems."

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