By Yaakov Resnik
As the semester progresses, workloads will increase and balancing the responsibilities of college, work and family will become a struggle for most of us. The pressure and anxiety may be too much for some. Believing it will improve their performance, many students, not diagnosed with ADHD, will use stimulant medications (e.g. Adderall and Ritalin), justifying that the benefits far outweigh the risks.
A systematic review of 113,104 subjects found that abuse rates among college students range from 5-35% with the highest rates of abuse amongst northeast colleges (cited in Lakhan and Kirchgessner Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). Three studies conducted in 2010 found that most students who misused prescription stimulants did so to enhance cognitive functioning, according to Weyandt, Oster and Marraccini from The National Center for Biotechnology.
What’s concerning is that students are mostly unaware that there is scant evidence that using stimulants have any positive effect on cognitive functioning. In fact, many studies have shown that stimulants might negatively impact areas of mental performance, especially in higher performers. This is sad because many fellow students incur the risks of stimulant abuse, unaware that the perceived benefits might not exist.
I contracted Lyme disease in November and, in an attempt to help me recover, my doctor prescribed Adderall as an energy booster. I noticed after a month that, while it seemed to be effective in helping me stay awake, cognitively I was not performing on par with my performances in the past, especially on tough mental tasks. I felt betrayed. I was never informed that I would have to exchange cognitive abilities for concentration. That’s when I decided to research the effects stimulants had on cognitive function.
The study results to come are being presented for the sole purpose of getting students to do their own research and consult with a professional before abusing medications. These studies were conducted using subjects who did not have ADHD.
Stimulants seemed to have a positive effect in three significant areas, improved attention, increased autonomic functions (such as heart rate blood pressure) and increased positive emotion.
However, just because something improves your attention and emotions, it doesn’t mean your brain is working any better.
Stimulants had either no effect or impaired the following functions.
First is cognitive control, a concept that refers to guidance in situations where the most natural and automatic action is not necessarily the correct one. Stimulants helped some people complete certain tasks, especially those less likely to perform well. In other words, it raised performances for those below the average spectrum, but did nothing for average-and-above performers.
Second, is your working memory. The short-term memory that retains information in order to reason was actually impaired! Working memory is “critical for cognitive abilities such as planning problem-solving and reasoning,” according to the Learning Disabilities Association of ON. Students wrongly assume stimulants make them smarter and quicker just because they can sit and concentrate for longer periods of time and their body and mind “feel” better.
Every student inevitably knows a friend who is abusing medication and incurring potentially fatal risks without relevant information.
Activism is great and we should continue to fight for climate change, mental health, equal opportunity and other important issues.
Encouraging your friend, who might be abusing medication, to do their own research is an activism that’s quiet. But potentially saving one friend who risks becoming dependent on harmful substances and enabling them to live a healthy life is a great badge of honor.