Society has clearly come out against performance-enhancing drugs in sports, but they are becoming increasingly common in academics.
Nearly one in five students at an Ivy League university have misused ADHD drugs to improve their school performance, according to a new poll being presented Saturday at the Pediatric Academic Societies' annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada. The lead researcher, Andrew Adesman, declined to name the college he surveyed, saying that he's confident that the rate is virtually the same at every other school.
"I don't think this is a phenomenon that's necessarily any greater a problem in the Ivies than anywhere else," said Adesman, a developmental pediatrician and chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park.
Some school honor codes, such as at Duke University in North Carolina, expressly forbid performance-enhancing drugs, Adesman said.
But many others have not yet acknowledged the growing use of these stimulant medications on their campuses, said Sean Esteban McCabe, a research associate professor at the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center.
Students in the poll reported mainly taking the drugs to write an essay or study for or take a test. One-third did not consider taking stimulants as a form of cheating, while 41% thought it was.
The vast majority of those who misuse ADHD drugs get them from people who have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and prescribed the drugs, research indicates. Some students are pressured by their friends to share medication, said Timothy Wilens, director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He suggests that college students with ADHD not tell their friends that they are taking medications.
Whether these drugs actually help improve performance is subject to some debate. There's no doubt, that ADHD medications improve focus and concentration, Wilens said.
For someone with ADHD, the drugs might help them focus for 20 minutes instead of the possibly five or so minutes that come naturally, he said. For someone without attention issues, who can already focus for 30-40 minutes, the drugs might help them tune in for 50 or 60 minutes. "It will improve performance," he said.
But whether that boost is enough to improve grades remains doubtful, McCabe said via e-mail.
The benefit "appears to be more of a myth than a reality." Several studies have shown that students who misuse ADHD drugs are already on the academic fringe, with lower grades and more drug and alcohol problems than their peers.
Plus, the possible health problems caused by medication abuse can erode academic performance, said Katherine Keyes, an epidemiologist at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
They can be addictive, she said, and they can cause problems like insomnia and agitation.
"It's not something you want to mess with without a physician's oversight," Keyes said.
The majority of people who misuse ADHD drugs do so in combination with other drugs, according to research by McCabe, who said emergency room visits for stimulant misuse more than doubled from 2005 to 2010.
"Many college students who simultaneously drink alcohol and use prescription stimulants have no idea how dangerous the interactions between these substances can be," McCabe said.