Study Drugs

Study drugs are prescription stimulants that are misused by students to help them focus or stay awake. Most of these medications are approved for the treatment of attention-hyperactivity/deficit disorder. These include Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse, Concerta and Dexedrine. When the drugs are misused, they can cause an array of dangerous side effects, including addiction.
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The term study drug is usually used to refer to prescription stimulants that are approved to treat ADHD. These drugs belong to a family of drugs called amphetamines. The category of drugs also includes the illicit drug methamphetamine, also known as crystal meth.

Students who use the medications also call them smart pills. Popular study drugs or smart pills include:

Students also use other substances to help them study. Many college students grab a coffee or a soda before heading to the library. Some take caffeine pills. Other popular over-the-counter substances include B12 supplements and L-Theanine, an amino acid found in some teas, according to the student blog NYU Local.

People have also used Modafinil, a medication used to treat narcolepsy, to help them study. Even though students use a variety of substances to help them study, the term study drugs usually refers to ADHD medications.

Why Do People Use Study Drugs?

Students who use study drugs without a prescription usually take them before writing an important paper or studying for a major exam. They believe that the prescription stimulants help them focus, stay awake and learn.

Decades of research shows that ADHD medications help children who have ADHD focus, behave in school and complete assignments. But research hasn’t proven that the medications enhance learning, memory or academic achievement, according to a 2012 review published in Brain and Behavior.

ADHD medications can make people who don’t have ADHD feel energetic and focused. However, research isn’t conclusive about whether the drugs help people learn or remember information, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Even though there is no proof that the drugs improve learning, thousands of college students take so-called study drugs each year. Other than marijuana, amphetamines are the most misused drugs by college students, according to the Monitoring the Future survey published in June 2017.

Adderall accounts for the majority of amphetamine misuse. Nearly 10 percent of college students reported taking the drug without a doctor’s prescription in 2016. Almost 4 percent of college students said they took an amphetamine without a prescription regularly.

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Are Study Drugs Addictive?

When used as prescribed by a doctor, ADHD medications are unlikely to cause addiction. But when they’re abused, the study pills can be addictive. The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies amphetamines as Schedule II controlled substances. That means they have an approved medical use, but they also have a high potential for abuse and addiction.

When the drugs are misused, they can cause changes in the brain that are similar to the changes caused by cocaine, according to a 2006 review published in Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy. The addiction risk increases when the drugs are snorted, injected or taken in high doses.

When a person is addicted to prescription drugs, they take the drugs despite negative consequences. Students may start to rely on study drugs to function normally. Instead of using them to cram before a test, they start using them to focus during class or to perform normal daily activities.

Without the drugs, they may struggle to focus. They may also go into withdrawal when they stop taking the pills. Withdrawal symptoms caused by amphetamines include sleep problems, fatigue and depression, according to NIDA.

Risks of Using Study Drugs

In addition to the risk of addiction, ADHD medications can cause a variety of side effects that range from mild to severe.

Common side effects of ADHD medications include:

  • Headache
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Appetite loss
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Sleep problems
  • Changes in sex drive

When the drugs are abused or taken in high doses, the risk of serious side effects increases.

Side effects of study drug abuse include:

  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Delusions

Prescription stimulants can also cause death by overdose. Signs and symptoms of an amphetamine overdose include high body temperature, convulsions and hallucinations. Injecting, snorting or taking high doses of study drugs increases the chances of an overdose.

College students shouldn’t take prescription amphetamines to study before tests. The powerful prescription drugs can cause severe side effects including addiction. Misusing study drugs can disrupt sleep, impair focus and cause depression. Each long-term side effect can impair academic performance, which defeats the purpose of taking the drugs in the first place.

Medical Disclaimer: aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

Chris Elkins, MA
Senior Content Writer,
Chris Elkins worked as a journalist for three years and was published by multiple newspapers and online publications. Since 2015, he’s written about health-related topics, interviewed addiction experts and authored stories of recovery. Chris has a master’s degree in strategic communication and a graduate certificate in health communication.

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