A growing number of college students seeking an academic edge are turning to Adderall to help them focus on their studies, according to a new study. The research, published Feb.16 in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, found that while the number of prescriptions for the drug – a stimulant medication used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – has fallen, misuse and emergency room visits have climbed dramatically in this age group.
“The growing problem is among young adults. In college, especially, these drugs are used as study-aid medication to help students stay up all night and cram,” co-author Ramin Mojtabai, MD, MPH, PhD, a professor of mental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a news release.
“Our sense is that a sizable proportion of those who use them believe these medications make them smarter and more capable of studying. We need to educate this group that there could be more serious adverse effects from taking these drugs and we don’t know much about their long-term health effects,” Mojtabai added.
For the study, Mojtabai and his colleagues looked at three different sets of data from surveys done from 2006 to 2011 on the misuse of stimulant medications: one on doctor visits, one on drug use and one on emergency room visits. In particular, they looked at Adderall and Ritalin, both commonly prescribed for ADHD.
Their findings showed that stimulant misuse among kids ages 12 to 17 had leveled off, and ER visits by this age group declined by 57 percent. Among 18 to 25 year-olds, the number of treatment visits remained the same during the study period, but non-medical use of Adderall – taking the drug without a prescription – rose 67 percent and ER visits jumped 156 percent. The trends for Ritalin did not change.
“While the mainstream media tend to attribute the increasing abusing rates of these prescription stimulants to physicians’ over-prescribing, our data do not support this,” co-author Lian-Yu Chen, MD, PhD, an attending psychiatrist at Taipei City Psychiatric Center in Taiwan, told CBS News. “In adults, the abusing rates and ER visits increased significantly, but the prescriptions did not,” she added.
In fact, the researchers found that the most common way of getting non-prescribed Adderall was from family and friends. And only two-thirds of that group got the drug by prescription.
Concern centers on the consequences of taking non-prescribed stimulant drugs. Amphetamines, including Adderall, can lead to dependence, and cause sleep disruption and serious cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure and stroke. The drug also increases the risk of mental health problems such as depression, bipolar disorder, and aggressive or hostile behaviors.
In addition, little is known about the long-term effects of Adderall. In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a black box warning that misuse of Adderall “may cause sudden death and serious cardiovascular events.”
Mojtabai cautioned that from a public health perspective, drugs like Adderall need to be monitored in the same way prescription painkillers are. He suggested that prescriptions be entered into a database that a physician can check before writing prescriptions to make sure that a patient is not receiving the drugs from multiple doctors.
Mojtabai also called for informational campaigns aimed at young adults that explained the serious adverse effects associated with stimulants. “Many of these college students think stimulants like Adderall are harmless study aids,” he said in the news release. “But there can be serious health risks and they need to be more aware.”