The misuse of ‘smart drugs’ as cognitive enhancers is on the rise in British and American universities AND is sending more people to the ER.
This month (Feb 2016), the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry reported a 156% rise in the number of young adults seeking emergency help after taking ADHD-medicine Adderall between 2006 and 2011. Prescriptions for the ADHD drug have remained the same over that time, so it’s pretty obvious that significant numbers of people are using it off-label and illegally.
At the same time, a doctor at the University of Bristol warned of an increase in the use of narcolepsy drug Modafinil – used to help students stay awake to study – in the past five years, with students suffering from side effects.
Drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin and Modafinil (Provigil ) — described as ‘smart drugs‘ — are popular among students (and CEOs as well, incidentally) as cognitive enhancers or study aids, used by those who need something stronger than coffee.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University examined three separate sets of U.S. data to compile the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry report. The information came from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (survey of ER visits), the National Disease and Therapeutic Index (includes info on prescribing) and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (population survery examining drug abuse).
While prescription use of Adderall remained static, off-label use of the drug – taking it when not prescribed – rose by 67%. Emergency Room visits increased by 156%. Staggering facts by anyone’s judgement. Interestingly, the most common source for non-medical use of Adderall was from friends or family members (two-thirds of whom were given it on prescription).
The researchers believe 60% of non-medicinal use of Adderall occured among young adults aged 18 to 25.
Ramin Mojtabai, MD, MPH, PhD, study co-author and professor of mental health at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, said: “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. Our sense is that a sizeable 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 serious adverse effects from taking these drugs and we don’t know much at all about their long-term health effects.”
Potential side effects of smart drugs include high blood pressure, chest palpitations, stroke, problems with sleep, anxiety, headaches, and an increased risk of bipolar and depression, as well as aggressive or hostile behaviour. Doctors, of course, consider these things when prescribing the drugs, but those taking it illegally bypass these safeguards.
The trend has also hit the UK as well. Bristol University doctor Dr Dominique Thompson told BBC News that the use of sleep disorder medicine Modafinil is also on the rise in universities.
Dr Thompson said she had personally witnessed a handful of students suffering from its side effects, and more students admitted to taking it over the past five years.
Last Year, Modafinil was labelled the ‘world’s first safe smart drug’ by researchers at Harvard and Oxford Universities. They found that it did indeed help problem solving and decision-making, and possibly even creativity, and argued that it appeared safe in the short term, with no addiction issues and few side-effects.
However, Dr Thompson said she and colleagues had seen ‘three or four’ students with side effects from Modafinil within the last 12 months alone, commonly appearing jittery and on edge, unable to sleep for a long time. Which makes sense, considering the drug is used to help narcoleptics stay awake.
She warned that the long-term effects of taking the drug were unknown and to be aware of buying it online because there was no way to know what you were getting.
She added: “The brain continues to form and develop until about the age 25, so if you’re 18-20 taking medications that are specifically stimulants and related to amphetamines, I think there’s a high risk something might go wrong.”
It is widely believed that an estimated 20-40% of university students have used smart drugs at some point.