Scitech | Not your best study buddy

Why psychostimulants might do more harm than good

The satisfaction of a job well done is often replaced by the relief and gratification of a job that is just done. It’s an unfortunate reality that, when faced with a long list of tasks to complete, we’d rather opt for the easy way out in most cases. Shortcuts have become a way of life and quick-fix solutions tend to be more appealing, especially in a time crunch. In the midst of midterm mania and paper panics, it’s easy to adopt a “let’s-just-get-this-over-with” attitude and push ourselves to the brink of exhaustion. 
In this atmosphere, the subculture of study enhancers emerges. As long as there have been educational institutions, there have been students who get that extra boost from vast quantities of caffeine – whether they’re soft drinks, energy drinks, or coffee. Recent trends, however, show students turning toward prescription drugs to keep them going through their marathon study sessions.

The term “study drug” refers mainly to prescription stimulant medications, which are geared toward increasing concentration and stamina. These include the host of pills offered to treat individuals with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Other study drugs include barbiturates, for anxiety and sleep disorders, and tranquillizers like benzodiazepines, which reduce stress and panic attacks. However, ADHD medications like Adderall, Dexedrine, Ritalin, and Concerta, are by far the most commonly abused as students expect to be endowed with hours of almost superhuman focus and concentration upon usage.

According to the International Narcotics Control Board, Canada currently ranks third highest in methylphenidate consumption per capita. The global consumption of methylphenidate rose by about 80 per cent between 2004 and 2008.  
Academic steroids: how they work 
Methylphenidate (Ritalin) is an amphetamine-like substance, closely resembling cocaine, while another ADHD drug, Adderall, is a “cocktail” combination of four different drugs from the amphetamine family. The effects of Adderall are said to be less harsh in terms of ups-and-downs than those of Ritalin, and it was originally marketed as a weight-loss drug. However, they produce similar results in terms of ADHD treatment, as well as similar side effects.

Although Adderall and Ritalin help individuals with ADHD calm down and concentrate, they have the opposite effect on those without ADHD. In fact, abuse of Adderall by a person with ADHD could actually cause lethargy, while it would create a hyperactivity high for people who do not show symptoms of the disorder.

These psychostimulants act like neurotransmitters and primarily affect norepinephrine and dopamine levels. Results include an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, constricted blood vessels, and opened respiratory pathways. In addition, they stimulate the frontal lobe of the brain, where time-management, persistence, and problem-solving are regulated – functions that ADHD patients may have difficulty with. Alertness, attention, and energy are all affected.

Due to their chemical composition, these performance-enhancing drugs have the potential for abuse, as well as for physical and psychological dependence. An easily built-up tolerance means that more of the drug is needed to produce the same effects. And, like other substances, discontinuing usage results in symptoms of withdrawal. These risks are especially high for those without ADHD.  
Getting a quick fix 
Getting your hands on these little pills is a little more difficult than just skipping over to the nearest pharmacy. These drugs are supposedly only available with a prescription, but some students have found a way around this by faking ADHD symptoms to obtain consent from doctors. Here at McGill, there are strict guidelines for the prescription of such drugs.

“Both of these medications are stimulants and potentially addictive. To get a prescription, you do need to be tested, and a diagnosis of this disorder does need to be made,” said a representative from Student Health Services. “Pulling all-nighters on these substances is not advisable. Students who do this more often than not do not perform as well as they could on the exam and often become sick and end up at Student Health.” 
With the global increase in the use of these drugs, however, it’s not surprising that people have means of procuring them. The most common method is called “diverting,” where those with ADHD sell their medication to others.  
Spencer Boudreau, McGill professor and ombudsperson for students, doesn’t see this as a prevalent problem at McGill. “I’m not naïve. I’m sure it does happen, one student selling their prescription drugs to another,” he said. “But it’s never been brought up as a serious issue with the school.”

The ’90s fostered a boom in the diagnoses of patients with ADD and ADHD, most often ascribed to children in elementary and middle school. Those individuals have been taking the drug for over a decade, which relaxes their attitudes toward its consumption, and now that these kids of the ’90s are growing up and going off to university, their psychostimulants are coming with them. This makes “diverting” all the more popular.  
Although information on the illicit use of prescription ADHD stimulants is hard to come by, estimates generally vary from around eight to 36 per cent of the student body.

Risky business
Since Ritalin and Adderall are legal substances prescribed by doctors, their consumption is often normalized. Effects may vary for everyone, but all drugs, by definition, tinker with your body’s inner chemistry – a risk in any situation, but more so if the drug wasn’t prescribed to you.  
Study drugs target your central nervous system, and even normal doses have the potential to last 24 hours. Short-term physical impacts include serious cardiac risks and psychiatric effects. Even more troubling are the often inconclusive and contradictory results of long-term studies of these drugs, which leave their impact largely unknown.

And it’s common for students to mix other substances in order to cancel out the psychostimulant effects of study drugs. For example, a student who has trouble falling asleep might be tempted to use something like alcohol or marijuana to calm down, rather than waiting a few hours for the original drugs to wear off. This do-it-yourself combination of “uppers” and “downers” plays havoc with your internal body regulation and acts like the prescription world’s equivalent of vodka-Red Bull cocktails: one substance increases your heart rate while the other tries to calm it down.  
The consumption of study drugs also doesn’t mean automatic results and completed work. “It’s just as likely that [a study drug] could glue you to a computer  game or YouTube for four hours instead of helping you finish your paper,” says Nic Blais, a McGill student with ADHD.

The yummy alternative 
The brain accounts for only about two per cent of our total body weight, yet consumes over 20 per cent of our daily calories. One of the most direct ways to influence your brain power is actually through diet.  
For short-term solutions, cheese and bananas are great to keep you going the night before an exam, while complex carbs like pasta are deadly for your concentration. 
If you are looking for a more long-term way to strengthen your cognitive abilities, eat “brain food” like fish, berries, cherries, apples, and whole grains. Commonly-cited examples are blueberries and wild salmon, although any kind of fish with Omega-3 fatty acids is great for neural connectivity, and walnut oil and flaxseeds are vegetarian-friendly alternatives. And since cocoa plants are ripe with those healthy, heart-protecting antioxidants, a little dark chocolate everyday could be your new drug of choice.