Noah has two papers to finish, three exams to study for, and a handful of college applications to fill out — all due in the next week. It’s a lot of work, and Noah feels like he needs help concentrating and staying focused on the tasks.
Noah’s brother takes ADHD medicine, and Noah has heard people call this kind of med a “study drug.” He knows it’s against the law to take medicines that weren’t prescribed for him. Still, Noah wonders if study drugs could be the help he’s looking for just to get through this one week.
What Are Study Drugs?
Doctors prescribe medicines like Adderall and Ritalin to treat conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Sometimes, people who don’t have these conditions take other people’s medicines because they think they’ll help them focus while doing schoolwork. That’s how these medicines got the name “study drugs.”
Study drugs are stimulants. They can increase alertness, energy, heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure for a short time. Study drugs don’t actually increase learning or thinking ability, though.
Two prescription stimulants are used as study drugs:
- amphetamines like Adderall, Dexedrine, or Vyvanse
- methylphenidates like Ritalin or Concerta
Most people get study drugs from a friend or relative who has a prescription. Sometimes, those with prescriptions don’t know who took their medicine — they discover it’s missing when they try to renew their prescription and find out they can’t. Pharmacies keep a count of each dose and won’t renew a prescription if someone should still have some left.
How Do Study Drugs Affect the Brain?
Nerve cells in the brain send messages back and forth by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters. Prescription stimulants have chemical structures that are similar to some neurotransmitters. When someone takes them, the drugs boost the effects of those neurotransmitters in the brain and body. This can lead to pumped-up brain activity, including increased focus and concentration.
The feel-good period only lasts a few hours. After the effects wear off, people can crash. They might feel sluggish, disconnected, or even depressed. They also might be disappointed when they look back at the work they did while taking the drugs.
The Downsides of Study Drugs
When doctors prescribe stimulants for medical conditions like ADHD, they start with a low dose. If someone needs more, they build up slowly and carefully. Doctors do this because large doses of stimulants can cause serious medical problems. These include:
- high blood pressure
- irregular heartbeat
- heart failure
Using stimulants too often can lead to intense anger, paranoia, heart problems, and mental health problems. Mixing study drugs with over-the-counter cold medicines that contain decongestants increases the chance of developing high blood pressure or an irregular heartbeat.
Lots of people who start taking study drugs think they’re harmless — or they think they’ll just use them once (like to get through finals). Study drugs can be just as addictive as street drugs, though. Over time, people who overuse stimulants can become dependent on them. If they try to quit, they may have withdrawal symptoms like depression, thoughts of suicide, intense drug cravings, sleep problems, and fatigue.
The health risks aren’t the only downside to study drugs. Students caught with illegal prescription drugs may get suspended from school, have to pay fines, and even do time in jail.
Alternatives to Study Drugs
If you need to focus, there are better choices than study drugs. Here are some proven ways to boost concentration and beat stress:
- Meditation. Even a few minutes of meditation each day reduces stress and quiets the mind. Meditating before tackling a big study session can clear the mind and help people focus on the task at hand.
- A good night’s sleep. Getting enough rest at night is crucial for the brain to focus, think clearly, and be alert. Doctors recommend that teens get about 9 hours of sleep per night.
- Exercise. Get blood pumping the natural way with sports, a gym workout, yoga, or just a simple fast walk. Exercise boosts learning, memory, and concentration. Regular exercise also improves mood, helps people sleep, and reduces stress.
- Healthy eating. Good nutrition is key to a healthy body and mind. Eating a variety of healthy foods (like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, and lean protein) fuels the brain and helps keep energy levels high.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: July 2015