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How Stimulant Drugs for ADHD Affect Students Without ADHD

Updated on March 6, 2019
Carola Finch profile image

Carola is a disability advocate with many years of experience working in the disability community. She is also a freelance writer.

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Many students are turning to the stimulant drugs used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the belief that they will enhance their academic performance. This practice raises some important questions, however. What do ADHD medications actually do? How do they affect people who do not have ADHD?

A Definition of ADHD

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), healthcare professionals diagnose ADHD based on the following criteria:

  • Inattention: May have trouble focusing on tasks or play, fails to follow through with tasks such as homework, may lose things, appear not to be listening when spoken to, are disorganized, avoid work that requires a lot of mental effort.
  • Hyperactivity/Impulsivity: Are restless and fidgety and noisy, talking a lot, interrupting and intruding on conversations, seems driven and on the go.

There are a number of treatment options available such as stimulant medications, other drugs, learning coping strategies, and therapies.

How Medical Professionals Diagnose ADHD

Doctors also take other factors into consideration such as:

the age at which the symptoms begin to manifest
proof that the symptoms are reducing or interfering with how they function at school, work, or in social situations
that the symptoms are not caused by mental disorders

Healthcare professionals evaluate certain symptoms that occur over a six month period to determine an ADHD diagnosis. Many medications that are prescribed for patients with ADHD stimulate and increase under-produced chemical neurotransmitters in the brain such as epinephrine and dopamine. The purpose of these stimulants is to correct the deficits caused by ADHD, not to enhance performance.

The Use of ADHD Medication by People who do not have ADHD

Some students who do not have ADHD are using non-prescription stimulant medications such as Ritalin, Adderall, and Vyavanse in the belief that will they will improve their ability to focus, according to CU Independent, a student run media site at the University of Colorado Boulder. A study by Yale University found that 40 percent of students in New England Colleges and 25 percent of those in Rocky Mountain colleges reported using stimulants.

A review by the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has revealed that between five to 35 percent of typical college-age students are using stimulant ADHD drugs as “study drugs.” According to the University of Buffalo, many high school and college students are using the stimulant drug Ritalin to get “high” or to lose weight. Users may have feelings of euphoria and exaggerated self-confidence that increases the risk of dependence. According to a review by SUNY Upstate Medical University, Some students modify their usage of stimulants by dissolving the medication in liquid before swallowing, chewing before swallowing, smoking, snorting, and injecting the drugs. Students do this to speed up the effect or get a more intense high.

Some students, family members, or friends who have been prescribed stimulants for ADHD are giving or selling their prescriptions to others. This practice can be dangerous because their drug usage is not monitored by a physician. Non-ADHD students may be taking the drugs because of peer pressure from others who claim that the medications will give them an advantage over their peers by making them smarter and helping them score higher in their subjects.

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How ADHD Drugs Affect People Without ADHD

More than half of the participants without ADHD in 40 studies on this topic did not see any cognitive improvements. Karen Miotto, director of the UCLA Addiction Medicine Service, commented that research shows that while stimulants may help with some kinds of attention and memory, they do not boost complex learning skills and have no effect on reading comprehension. Students may feel more focused because they think they are – a placebo effect.

Possible negative consequences:

Behavioral changes

  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Heightened attention
  • Feelings of euphoria, depression, mood swings
  • Impaired memory
  • Unusual behaviors such as isolation and secrecy

Physical changes

  • Fatigue and sleeplessness
  • Not eating, weight loss
  • Dilated pupils
  • Dry nose and mouth
  • Seizures
  • Cardiomyopathy (a disease of the heart muscle that makes it harder for the muscle to pump blood throughout the body) and other heart problems
  • Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
  • Structural changes and inflammation in the brain that may be long lasting or permanent
  • Increased risk of developing dependence and addiction
  • In extreme cases, sudden death

Some students may become distressed by the accelerated thinking and speech caused by the drugs and have difficulty in switching gears during tasks. They may become hooked on the focus created by the drugs and feel they must take them to perform well in school. The medications can decrease their ability to focus when off the drugs.

A study by the University of Buffalo found that non-prescription use of the stimulant Ritalin may cause irreversible structural changes in some parts of the brain. Researchers found that the chronic use of this drug by people who do not have ADHD symptoms can cause neuroinflammation in the areas of the brain that are related to motivating behavior. The brains of young people are still developing so the use of this drug could impact their ability to respond to environmental changes and raise their risk for addiction.

Concluding Thoughts

Current research suggests that so-called the use of “study drugs” are not effective in boosting attention and have a lot of negative emotional and physical side effects. Getting 7 – 9 hours of sleep a night can provide an alternative way to sharpen an ability to focus, multitask, and learn.

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