Steroids for the brain: a shortcut to success?

Exploring student use of smart drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall to aid focus and concentration

What if someone gave you a magic pill – a pill that could allegedly improve your concentration, boost your alertness, bring all the disjointed pieces of your life back into bright focus and make you stop procrastinating? But there’s a catch – there are very few studies confirming the drug’s effects when used without prescription. Moreover, the miracle drug could also have some significant negative consequences on your emotions, your sleep, your bone health, your liver – and also could potentially be addictive. Would you take the pill?

College students across Ireland are using so-called “smart drugs” to improve their performance and overall productivity, in an effort to cope with the enormous pressure of academic life. The largest study so far, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, with tens of thousands of participants, found that 14 percent of people surveyed had used cognitive stimulants in the preceding year, compared to five percent in 2015. Most had access to them from friends, others reported purchasing the drugs from a dealer – but only four percent of those had been medically prescribed the drug, leaving a staggering 96% of users taking them without a prescription.

These drugs are not approved for casual use by healthy individuals. Most of them, like Adderall, Ritalin, and Modafinil, are designed for treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, in which case they are proven to enhance memory and attention, and promote wakefulness in people who struggle with these conditions. Their mechanism of action is primarily based on increasing the activity of dopamine and noradrenaline, the reward and alertness hormones, thus inducing a feeling of extreme motivation and focus. These are the same hormones targeted by the notorious psychostimulant drug, cocaine.

There are very few studies that tackle the non-medical use of cognitive enhancing prescription drugs, especially in Ireland. The most relevant is a study undertaken in 2014 by the London School of Economics and King’s College London, which revealed that 9% of college students surveyed in the UK and Ireland had taken either Ritalin, Modafinil, or Adderall. Of these students, 64% claimed that they had acquired the drugs online. There is no official data as of yet of how many students take smart drugs in Trinity. However, in an interview with a student drug dealer published by Trinity News earlier this year, a dealer noted that drugs like Adderall are “very big in Trinity”.

I felt that I couldn’t fail or get a bad mark or do a bad job, so this was the option for me to get solid hours of work through the night for deadlines, but also it would be good quality work.”

A final year student who has taken smart drugs spoke to Trinity News about her experience. “I got them through a friend who saw how stressed and panicked I was, and he offered me some, just to get me through a few all-nighters,” she explained. “It got to a stage where it was too much. I was [under] too much stress and pressure. I felt that I couldn’t fail or get a bad mark or do a bad job, so this was the option for me to get solid hours of work through the night for deadlines, but also it would be good quality work.” Usually taking them in the evening at some time between 8pm to 10pm, she would be able to do work for ten hours, finishing the next morning. “I would just then stay awake and be fairly alert throughout the night, whereas if I stayed up to do essays [without the drugs], I would be falling asleep or I would be typing stuff and not really know what I was typing.”

She admits that taking the drugs isn’t an ideal routine, due to the crash that occurs afterwards. The fatigue previously caused her to try to enter the wrong apartment and forget whole conversations with people. “It’s not a healthy long-term strategy at all,” she said. “To not sleep for two whole days is obviously really unhealthy. I don’t even know the full extent of the implications of that.”

“The way I was looking at it was that it was a way of helping people out to get as good a grade as they possibly can.”

Stress over college work is noted as one of the main reasons behind taking study drugs. A former Trinity student, who was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Concerta and Ritalin, started selling the drugs to students after seeing how effective it was for her. “What it did for me was make me normal, and made me actually focus like a normal human being,” she said. “But for someone who is already normal, I figured that if they took this magic pill, that would make them focus even harder, it would be amazing for them.” She told Trinity News that she started mentioning the drugs to her friends who vented to her about the amount of work they had to do. “I would say, ‘I’ll sell you some of my Ritalin, if you want’. They would laugh it off like it was a joke, but then when I said it again the next time, then they were like, ‘Wait, for real? Seriously?’” She sold seven pills for €50 to around seven final year students, handing them over in quiet aisles of the Ussher or Hamilton libraries. “That’s a full week of incredible study, literally twelve hours of uninterrupted work every single day for a week, for €50,” she explained. “I never felt any guilt over it ever, at all,”  she said. “It’s not addictive at all, in any way, shape, or form. I would never sell what you would class as typical recreational drugs. The way I was looking at it was that it was a way of helping people out to get as good a grade as they possibly can.”

Among Adderall’s potential dangers addressed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are the risk of stroke and heart attack in adults, psychotic symptoms in children and teenagers, aggressive behaviour, and manic symptoms. Given that these issues are reported in patients undergoing ADHD treatment, the effects on healthy users might be even worse. The Trinity student who sold her medication said that she was aware of these symptoms, as there would always be a leaflet on such information with every bottle she bought. “Whenever I sold anyone any, I would give them a leaflet and I would say ‘read all of this before you take it’. I would explain to them that it was like the limitless pill, or it’s like speed for your brain and for studying. People at first would always be quite apprehensive about taking it. They were asking for it, but I could tell they were nervous, so I’m pretty sure they read the little leaflet I gave them.”

As expected, there are also students who claim that they are self-medicating, taking their lack of attention and motivation as clear signs of ADHD. Nonetheless, mental health disorders are tricky to interpret and it takes a qualified specialist to perform a correct diagnosis. Attention disorders are particularly easy to misdiagnose, as all of us struggle, at some point, with symptoms like disorganisation, impulsivity, poor time management skills and lack of focus. Bearing this in mind, ADHD is a serious medical condition, not just any mood swing, and should not be taken as lightly. The Trinity alumni mentioned that she had refused to sell a student the drug because the student, who also had anxiety disorder, had self-diagnosed herself with ADHD. “When she came asking for me, and she was telling me her story, saying, “I have ADHD but the doctors keep saying I don’t,” I was thinking, “Well, I think that means you don’t.” She explained, “Because they were refusing to give her any kind of medication because of her anxiety, I was thinking, “If I give this to you, you’re actually going to die, no way.” So I said no.”

Both interviewees commented they didn’t know a lot of people who take these drugs in College. “I would be quite involved in extracurricular activities in Trinity, and I know a lot of people in those circles, who would be very involved, that would feel like they’d have to take it in order to get through,” the Trinity student said. “But amongst friends in my course, no, not really, I wouldn’t know anyone who would.” The former student agreed, saying, “I’ve only heard it through people who are being like: ‘Apparently, it’s huge in Trinity and everybody takes them.’ But I was in the Arts Block and I had people in my class buying it, and I studied in the Hamilton and I had my science friends buying it, so I was literally all over the place. If it was that big, people would be seeking me out more.”

“Adderall, for instance, is a mixture of amphetamine salts – a powerful psychoactive substance and a Schedule II controlled substance in the US, along with cocaine, opium, and meth.”

Many students tend to see these drugs as helpful in the short-term. In a study conducted in 2006, on a sample of 175 full-time undergraduate students in the US, many of the students minimised the gravity of their smart drug use themselves by comparing them with everyday stimulants such as coffee and energy drinks. However, prescription drugs are not your average Red Bull. Adderall, for instance, is a mixture of amphetamine salts – a powerful psychoactive substance and a Schedule II controlled substance in the US, along with cocaine, opium, and meth. Ritalin is also a class II controlled substance and has the potential to cause addiction in larger doses. Modafinil’s mechanism of action is still unknown.

However, if we are going to question the justifications that students make when taking these drugs, despite them being illegal and potentially dangerous, perhaps we should also think about why they are using them. The job market is becoming more and more competitive each day, and often, a high grade alone cannot guarantee a job. Internships, volunteering, and extracurricular activities are often what make a candidate stand out from the rest. Juggling all of these things require more hours in the library than the average student can handle. With study drug use affecting 9% of college students surveyed in the UK and Ireland, it is surprising that there has not been many studies tackling the subject, and that Irish universities do not have strong policies on study drugs specifically. The potential danger of these drugs calls for a better conversation surrounding not only the drugs themselves but on the expectations we have for our students.

Danielle Olavario

Danielle Olavario is a former SciTech Editor of Trinity News. She is a Microbiology graduate.