At universities around the country, Adderall and Ritalin are the study drugs of choice, but using them to study rather than to treat illness has some dangerous consequences. The drugs were initially developed in the 1940s to treat fatigue, depression, and psychosis, and in the ’90s, Mic reports, Ritalin production rose by 500%. By the mid-2000s, it’sestimated that 30% of students had used attention deficit hyperactivity disorder stimulants non-medically.
Adderall is an amphetamine, so it raises the dopamine and norepinephrine levels in your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Basically, it creates the feeling of motivation that makes us want to take action to achieve our goals. Norepinephrine is a stress hormone that affects parts of the brain related to attention and response. It increases blood flow, which makes you really excited but also puts stress on your heart.
All of this combined means when Adderall hits the brain, you get better focus, become more alert, and have less impulsivity and depression. This all sounds good in terms of the benefits, but the problem is that doctors don’t always know what parts of the brain are being affected and how.
Clifford Segil, neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, toldMic that when doctors prescribe Adderall, “we’re sort of carpet-bombing.” The drug doesn’t concentrate on just the parts of the brain that need medicine, he said. It affects the whole thing.
When Adderall works the way it should, according to Segil, “it triggers the neurotransmitters in the prefrontal cortex, an area responsible for executive functioning, thus improving your concentration and focus. Then it triggers dopamine in the basal ganglia, which facilitates calm and can alleviate hyperactivity and impulsivity. And if dopamine hits the hypothalamus, the area of the brain responsible for hormone production, it can even alleviate depression.”
The FDA notes that usual doses of stimulants like Adderall can cause psychotic or manic symptoms, like hallucinations, delusional thinking, or mania, in children. They also note aggressive behavior or hostility in children and adolescents with ADHD. Furthermore, consistently medicated children have a temporary slowing in growth rate. Oftentimes, doctors will have young ADHD patients take the summer off from the prescription drugs, so their bodies can catch up.
The biggest concern with prescribing Adderall is that it’s usually prescribed as if these stimulants are trivial. According to the FDA, patients should be screened for mood disorders. ADHD patients with comorbid bipolar disorder, for example, are more at risk for manic episodes, which can be triggered by stimulants. Though this doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should, patients should go through a screening that includes a detailed psychiatric history, including family history of suicide, bipolar disorder, and depression.
The list of potential side effects is a long one. Adderall can cause low libido (decreased sex drive), sleep disturbances or insomnia, headaches, chronic fatigue, panic attacks, depression, intense hunger, and suicidal thoughts, and more if you’re trying to quit taking the drug.
The moral of the story is, unless you are prescribed Adderall, the benefits of using it as a study drug probably don’t outweigh the health risks you are inviting into your body.
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