Part 2 of a two-part series
By Kyle Jorrey
What study drug users describe as a magical transformation from slacker to scholar really has nothing to do with magic at all. In fact, the effectiveness of these drugs in helping the students to complete their task is the result of years of scientific research.
From as far back as the 17th century, inquiring scientists have searched for answers regarding the function of the human body’s most complex organ: the brain.
While initial studies were revealing at best, evidence was obtained linking brain activity with electrical currents, and those electrical currents with the billons of neurons that make up the central nervous system.
Then in the early 1900s, three scientists — Adrian, Gasser, and Erianger — put all the pieces of the puzzle together. The team found that the electrical pulses within the neurons, firing a rate of once every one-thousandth of a second, caused chemicals, called neurotransmitters, to be released. In turn, those neurotransmitters cause other neurons to start firing. The resulting chain reactions are the source of all bodily functions.
Armed with the knowledge of neuroscience, modern-day pharmaceutical companies have synthesized drugs that can correct imbalances in this normal brain function, imbalances that cause conditions like attention-deficit disorder. In the case of ADD, and its close cousin, ADHD, attention deficit hyperactive disorder it is a lack of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine (NOR-ep-ih-NEH-frin), a problem doctors found can be remedied by taking drugs like adderall or ritalin.
Oddly enough, the effects of these pills is not too different from well-known illegal stimulants.
“They have a chemical structure very similar to cocaine and amphetamines, even caffeine,” psychology professor Dr. Michael Folkerts said. “These drugs are mimicking the effects of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, activating similar mechanisms, which cause the release of newly synthesized dopamine. This provides those stimulating and focusing effects.”
Folkerts has an extensive background in pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics, the study of how drugs move throughout the body and how they interact with receptors in the brain.
This heightened brain activity Folkerts described, is what the majority of students who misuse “study drugs” for late-night cram sessions are after.
According to Dr. Fred Barnes, licensed clinical psychologist and director of Pepperdine’s Student Counseling Center, central nervous system stimulants, like adderall, have proven quite successful in helping those diagnosed with ADD/HD to function normally in an academic setting.
“They work very well,” Barnes said. “They are very effective in helping students to focus, concentrate, reduce hyperactivity, study more effectively, complete and follow through on task.”
But when taken without a prescription, away from the observation of a trained medical professional, study drugs can be as dangerous as they are effective. In addition to facing the negative side effects of normal usage (loss of appetite, weight loss, abdominal pain, headaches, depression), non-prescription users also run the risk of combining the stimulant with another drug that can cause a lethal affect (see sidebar)
“They are prescribed because they are designed for a specific purpose, designed to treat a certain illness or condition in that individual,” Folkerts said. “Doctors look at specific individual characteristics when they prescribe the drug and its dosage … if you went based on averages you’d be missing by a long shot. When you are taking a drug for a physical condition and you don’t have that physical condition, you are introducing a chemical into the body or brain that may or may not be beneficial.
“Unregulated self-medicating, especially in combination with other medicines, without checking things like blood pressure, heart rate, history of complications … you are truly putting yourself in a potentially dangerous situation, and that’s just not worth it,” Folkerts added.
As evidence of just how seriously doctors take an adderall prescription, one just needs to look at the extensive evaluation process required for a diagnosis. Usually taking up to three weeks or more, the prescribing doctor looks back throughout the subject’s life, as far back as pregnancy, to find instances where the student’s central nervous system might have been injured. This doctor consults former physicians, psychologists, neurologists and others who had worked with the patient, trying to find patterns of symptoms that reveal the presence of ADHD.
“Ideally, if a student has ADD/HD there should be a history of such difficulties as far back to kindergarten,” Barnes said. “The evaluation process includes the administration of a battery of psychological, intelligence, neurological, personality and achievement tests, as well as a complete learning and developmental history.”
Though almost anyone, especially college students, could admit to suffering from one symptom of ADHD or another (forgetfulness, easily distracted, impulsiveness, poor judgment), a diagnosis and a prescription require much more.
“The classic symptoms are distributed throughout the normal population. We all have symptoms of ADD/HD at times,” Barnes explained. “But according to the DSM-IV, in order to be diagnosed with the disorder, these symptoms must be present and also must significantly interfere with three or more areas of the person’s life.”
After working with ADHD patients throughout his career, Barnes said the idea of students taking drugs like adderall and ritalin without a prescription is alarming.
“However the potential for abuse occurs when a person is in possession of this medication without a definitive diagnosis, based upon a comprehensive assessment and the person wants to be the recipient of academic or work-related accommodations,” Barnes said. “That represents a problem within the person’s character.”
Aside from the physical risks, it is important to note that all of these drugs are listed as Schedule II drugs by the federal government, meaning they have an accepted medical use but a high potential for abuse. It also means that misusing them can get you in trouble with the law.
“They are a FDA controlled, if a students sells or uses the drugs without a diagnosis it is violation of the law, and it represents substance abuse,” Barnes said.
With the potential for abuse clear, Folkerts said he can still see the mind set that tells students it’s OK to abuse prescription drugs in this manner.
“This situation is not unique to Pepperdine,” Folkerts said. “It just so happens that the elements are here — the need to stay awake, this desire to succeed — that the attitude might be ‘if this is something that can give me a boost in the short term, hey, I’m not talking about taking it the rest of my life, I just need it to get me through this week, this exam.’ But the risk are real.”
“If a student is unmotivated to study, to hand in assignments, complete readings and do all that is necessary to be successful academically, failure is assured. Efforts to counterbalance what is really the end results of not being responsible with a stimulant is not good.”
February 19, 2004