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From Ambition to Addiction: A Look at “Study Drugs”

Dr. Anna Pickering

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Anna Pickering

April 3, 2019

College students often face a lot of pressure and stress from trying to balance school, work, and everyday life. This stress often builds up and can leave many students susceptible to taking study drugs to try and improve their grades. What most don’t know is that these drugs are dangerous and can quickly lead to addiction.

The following example is of the current setting around many college campuses these days. Competition is fierce. It’s time for an all-important test, and Joe college student needs to ace it in order to get the highest class rank. But here’s the problem. With a busy social, sporting, and all-around school life, coupled with some procrastination in studying thrown in, Joe knows that if he doesn’t pull an all-nighter and cram for the test, he’ll be left in the dust.

So, what’s he to do? Coffee and caffeine don’t cut. Energy drinks don’t either. These days, the new way many students are pulling an all-night study session is by taking a pill. Students call these pills “study drugs” or “smart drugs”, while scientists call them “cognitive enhancers”.

But whatever name you use for them, an estimated 60 percent of college students reported knowing someone who misused neuroenhancement stimulants, 50 percent reported that it was easy to obtain prescription stimulants on campus and 7.5 percent reported personally misusing stimulants within the prior 30 days, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Rhode Island.

But the student stimulant-use epidemic isn’t limited to just college students. It’s worse. In high schools across the nation, ambitious and competitive high school students, looking to get top scores on their SATs to help get their foot into a top university, perhaps even an Ivy League college, are turning to addicting-prone prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin. “Even parents are going so far as requesting ADHD drugs for kids who don’t meet the criteria for the disorder,” reports PsychCentral, to help their child get a leg up.

According to this front-page New York Times article, an estimated 15 percent to 40 percent of high-achieving seeking high school students are looking to prescription study drugs to give them the academic edge.

From 2002 to 2012, a study published in June 2012 in Pediatrics, found that drug prescriptions for children under 17 years of age for ADHD jumped by 46 percent.

As alarming as these statistics are, it gets worse. These so-called “study drugs” are prone to abuse, can be addictive, and can lead to serious health consequences. So what exactly are these study drugs?

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What Are Study Drugs?

Study drugs refer to prescription drugs that students use to increase stamina, focus, alertness, and concentration for purposes of “cramming” for an exam or writing a long paper. They are used by a student without a prescription and not for their intended purpose. They include:

Many of these study drugs are used legitimately to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The problem is that in people with ADHD, for example, Adderall helps to calm them down. However, for people who don’t have ADHD, Adderall can trigger hyperactivity — which the students translate to hyper-productivity.

These drugs don’t actually make kids smarter; they simply help to keep them alert and awake.

Dangers of Study Drugs

Prescription stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall have the very real potential for both psychological and physical dependence. With continued use, a higher tolerance for the drug ensues, requiring larger doses to maintain the same effects.

When discontinuing a prescription stimulant, withdrawal symptoms can develop, which may include:

  • depression
  • extreme tiredness
  • nightmares
  • anxiety
  • restlessness
  • hunger

More serious risks from withdrawal may include:

  • seizures
  • heart attack
  • heart palpitations
  • stroke
  • death

While the overdose and health risks are the forefront of the dangers of study drugs, students who use study drugs illegally (without a prescription) can also be subject to prosecution.

Alternatives To Study Drugs

Some students, feeling overwhelmed with school requirements, the competition to get ahead, and/or peer pressure believes that study drugs are their only option for success in school. However, “there are alternatives to neuroenhancements available, including maintaining good sleep, nutrition, study habits, and exercise regimens,” said William Graf, MD, of Yale University and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. Students need to understand that these natural alternatives to energy and focus are the way to go.

The American Academy of Neurology is also warning physicians around the nation to halt prescribing ADHD medications to children without the condition just to give them an edge in their school coursework.

Contact us at to learn more about addiction to prescription stimulants.

View Infographic From Ambition To Addiction: A Look At “Study Drugs”

American Academy of Pediatrics - Trends of Outpatient Prescription Drug Utilization in US Children, 2002–2010

The New York Times - Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill

Journal of Attention Disorders - Nonmedical Prescription Stimulant Use Among a Sample of College Students: Relationship With Psychological Variables

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