Study Drugs: Worth the Risk?

Image Credit: Christina Victoria Craft on Unsplash

Mani Beygi reports on the risks associated with the use of ‘study drugs’ such as Adderall and whether or not they make you smarter.

Based on “The Drug Use in Higher Education in Ireland (DUHEI) Survey '' published in 2022, 10% of ‘current users’ of drugs used amphetamines explicitly to help with their studies or exams. The same study also found out that only 29.5% of current users and 22.0% of recent users felt like they were fully informed about the risks of using drugs. 

Because of this, I’d like to have an honest discussion about these drugs, to help you know what they are, how they affect you, the risks associated with using them, and how you can help yourself or others. This piece does not seek to condemn, judge, or endorse the use of study drugs, and instead seeks to examine the effects of these drugs on students and their work.

What are Cognitive Enhancers & Study Drugs?   

In scientific literature, cognitive enhancers and study drugs tend to be used interchangeably. However, they can consist of a variety of legal (i.e caffeine), illegal (i.e speed) or prescription medicine (i.e. Ritalin) that can be used to either directly impact studying or indirectly help with behaviour that might benefit studying, such as sleeping for longer periods of time. This article will be focusing on stimulants that affect studying only, and excludes dietary supplements or other drugs that indirectly affect studying. 

What are Stimulants? 

Stimulants can range from the prescription-only medicine like Ritalin that is used for the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), to illicit substances like methamphetamine (crystal meth), amphetamines (speed) or cocaine. 

Prescription stimulants are either created using a mixture of amphetamine salts (like Adderall), non-amphetamine drugs like Modafinil, or drugs that are “amphetamine-like”, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin). However, the effects of both Ritalin and Adderall are the same for treating ADHD, and Modafinil is used for treating narcolepsy (a sleeping condition).  

Cocaine is also considered a stimulant, and in my interview with Charles - a 4th year PPE UCD student - he mentioned hearing about people using cocaine before exams. While cocaine does stimulate our bodies, it also causes general cognitive, executive function and declarative memory deficits. 

How do they affect us? 

Stimulants tend to have similar effects on the brain - which explains why Ritalin and Adderall are both used for treating ADHD. However, the ‘pathways’ they take vary slightly, which results in their different use cases or side-effects. 

Our brain cells communicate with each other by releasing little molecules known as neurotransmitters (like dopamine or noradrenaline), and these drugs either act similar to these neurotransmitters, make their effects last longer, or make our brain cells release more of them. 

For students like Charles and myself who have ADHD, Ritalin acts by stopping hindering the cells that have released dopamine and noradrenaline to absorb them again, prolonging their effect. This helps treat our ADHD symptoms because dopamine is the transmitter that lets us focus, listen, sit still, and do our laundry. We essentially don’t have enough of either molecule to plan and do normal, everyday things that other people without ADHD can, which is known as executive dysfunction. Modafinil acts in a similar way to Ritalin, except it mostly helps with dopamine, and not noradrenaline.

Amphetamines like Adderall also allow more dopamine and noradrenaline to take effect in our brain, but they achieve this differently than Ritalin. Amphetamines largely compel the neurons to release more neurotransmitters, and also prevent them from being broken down. The final result is that more dopamine and noradrenaline is present in our brains to take effect.

Noradrenaline also helps with increasing awareness, and affects other parts of the body as well such as the heart, increasing heart rate. These effects result in a beneficial outcome if the correct dosage of these medications are used. 

Do They Really Make You Smarter? 

Simply said, we’re not sure. There are some studies out there suggesting some improvements in cognitive performance, but a larger fraction only give inconclusive evidence and cannot confirm or rule it out. Most of these studies suggest that study drugs only increase energy, confidence and motivation rather than having a direct impact on cognition. There are even some studies that suggest a negative impact on academic performance due to “euphoric states” or abnormal moods, preventing students from preparing for exams or studying. 

I spoke to a final year student here in UCD, who had their Adderall stolen by other people - a frustrating experience, especially during an Adderall shortage. Using these drugs when you don’t need them can still harm those who do so - this is important to keep in mind.

Worth the Risk? 

It is time to answer the main question of this article: Are study drugs worth the risk? Hopefully, so far you’ve learned a bit more about these drugs, but I won’t be telling you to don’t use them or not. In this final part, I’ll inform you about the actual risks associated with using these drugs, and you can make an informed decision. Firstly, a lot of these symptoms that I’ll be mentioning do also affect those diagnosed with ADHD, especially if you misuse your prescription and take more than what you were supposed to.

Common side-effects of these legal drugs include: 

We don’t have enough information about Modafinil causing dependence, caution is advised. While it’s reported that most students who use study drugs for non-medical reasons purchase it from their friends who have a prescription, it is possible to get unregulated versions of these drugs as well, or their ‘street’ versions like methamphetamine.

If you are going to use ‘street’ adderall or ritalin, please keep in mind that the dosage of these drugs are not controlled, and they may be contaminated by other drugs that either are not as harmful (like caffeine), or much more harmful, like fentanyl. Testing with drug identification kits is strongly advised. 

The risks for ‘street’ amphetamines & methamphetamines like speed or crystal meth include: 

Useful Resources

Talk to Frank - use this to learn more about any drugs in a simple, well-defined way.

Drugs And Me - Your Resource for Safer, Smarter, and Healthier Drug Use. - the HSE’s website for drug information & harm reduction. 

If you want safer access to drugs, you can start advocating for harm reduction & legalisation. Write to your local TDs, join political societies in UCD, or NGOs like YouthRise or Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) who have a chapter in UCD.