Attention deficit hyperactive disorder is a neurologically based behavioral disorder that afflicts children and adults alike (1). Characterized by inability to pay attention, hyperactivity, and impulsive actions, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, or ADHD for short, this disorder has become a popular diagnosis for students who claim that they are unable to concentrate or focus on their studies (2). Much research has been done in recent years regarding ADHD, its neurological basis in the brain, and how to treat it effectively (1). Many prescription drugs have been released onto the market that effectively target the levels of certain hormones which in turn enable one to counteract the symptoms of ADHD (3).
However, drugs such as Adderall, which were developed solely for those properly diagnosed with the disorder, are beginning to be used recreationally by those whom admit to not having ADHD, but either find that they perform better with its aid or simply enjoy the high of the prescription drug (4). What does this mean for college students? Is recreational use of this drug dangerous physically? Mentally? Does the use of Adderall by those not diagnosed with pose the threat of an addiction? Is an addiction to a drug that seems to make you more efficient a bad thing?
To begin to answer these questions and more, one must understand a few of the basics of the neurobiology behind the disorder ADHD and the science behind drugs that treat it. Like many neurologically based disorders, scientists are not 100% sure of all of the complicated functions that play a role (1). However, by using state of the art brain imaging techniques, several studies have deduced that brains afflicted with ADHD malfunction in the frontal cortex (1). The frontal cortex is involved with primarily executive functions like reasoning, planning, focusing, and problem solving (1). It is in this part of the brain that dopamine, an important neurotransmitter, has been found to be deficient. Without proper concentrations of dopamine in the frontal cortex, these executive functions suffer (5).
To treat this disorder, prescription drugs like Adderall may be prescribed to patients. Adderall is a cocktail of several active ingredients that include amphetamine salts, an active ingredient in many ADHD medications. These amphetamines are thought to treat ADHD by blocking the reuptake of dopamine from the neural synapses and increasing the uptake into subsequent neurons. The increased dopamine flow in the frontal cortex then allows the brain to carry on its executive functions as a normal brain would, thus counteracting the effects of ADHD (6). But what happens when a brain whose executive functions work properly is treated with such a powerful stimulant?
The answer to this question lies in the 1 in 5 college students that admit to using this drug and not having ADHD (7). Why? Athletes have steroids, depressives have “happy-pills”, and those who wish to do it all, and do it fast, have Adderall. A person with a perfectly normal, functioning frontal cortex and dopamine levels will experience a heightened sense of motivation, focus, and concentration. Presumably this is the perfect mood to pull all-nighters, read hundreds of pages at a time, and write pages and pages of that final paper (8). “I didn't feel like I was becoming smarter or even like I was thinking more clearly. I just felt more directed, less distracted by rogue thoughts, less day-dreamy (7),” states Joshua Foer, a journalist who, after consulting many doctors, decided to try Adderall for himself. “I felt like I was clearing away underbrush that had been obscuring my true capabilities (7).” Before performing his experiment, Foer discussed his decision with psychiatrists who informed him, to his surprise, that when taken in small doses, irregularly, with or without a prescription, Adderall is most likely harmless (7). Other scientists beg to differ, and it is these accounts that are of particular interest.
The general consensus is that stimulant amphetamines like Adderall do indeed increase performance in those that do and do not have properly diagnosed ADHD. The promise of a better GPA with less effort is promise enough for college students across the board to obtain Adderall by any means necessary. Many students admit to actually seeing doctors and purposefully exaggerating symptoms of ADHD to acquire medication. Others simply pop a generously donated pill from their pals (8). The danger lies in the possibility of dependence and the rarely considered effect of the drug on those that have preexisting medical problems that can deteriorate with prolonged use (8).
Since many students assert that they use Adderall only for studying for large tests and completing important assignments, the risk of dependency is high. “I don’t think I’m addicted…..I just can’t imagine not taking it (8),” says student Susan. Says student Steve: “I attend a major university….I take two pills when I have a ton of work to do….Without Adderall I failed one class….I began to take Adderall again and saw a huge improvement (9).” The long term effects of using Adderall in this manner are relatively unknown, however it is well known that those that use amphetamines in larger doses by snorting or inhaling can very well be diagnosed with addiction. Just one example of an amphetamine of this nature is speed (10).
Other side effects of this drug include being irritable while under the influence (8) and feeling as though one’s creativity has been stifled in the name of creating order out of disorder and doing the one task at hand (7). “These medications allow you to be more structured and more rigid. That's the opposite of the impulsivity of creativity,” says Dr. Heiligenstein of the University of Wisconsin (7). Is this just a small price to pay for an “A?” Can one sacrifice their creativity for a few hours in the name of passing Chemistry?
There is even more to this issue than menacing side effects, however. What is it about academics today that have students popping pills to succeed? And is it fair? Athletes that use steroids are kicked off their sports teams because they are assumed to have an unfair advantage—so isn’t this the same general principle? Many students, especially those that actually suffer from ADHD reply “Yes.” “It’s the kind of medication that can help anyone,” says ADHD afflicted student Josie, “For people with ADD, it just makes them normal, and for people without ADD, it makes them above average. If both me and someone without ADD were both on Adderall, I could never outdo them (8).”
So, as a stressed out college student striving to succeed in school and boost my GPA, I sit here wondering how much faster and more efficiently I could have written this paper had I been taking Adderall. A nagging suspicion tells me that yes, maybe I would have finished before 2 am. Maybe I would have stopping pausing to check my e-mail and Facebook. But my gut tells me that this is the wrong thing to do. Not being afflicted with ADHD, I do not have a good reason to take a pill to succeed other than to counteract my own inability to “get down to business”, as they say. My motivation for writing this paper was to find out whether or not unprescribed use of Adderall was dangerous. It appears that though it is not. The risk of dependency, however, is real, and can be seen in those students that can no longer finish assignments without the help of this drug. My question now is whether or not it is morally correct for college students to continue taking this drug as a stimulant—a question that is up to the reader to decide for his or herself.
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