Matthew Greenacre / The Silhouette
Imagine realizing that you haven’t consulted your textbook since before the midterm and your final exam is in 18 hours and counting. A knot forms in middle of your gut as you realize that you drank, YouTubed, or twittered away all the time you had to read those 12 chapters, and you really cannot afford to get a two in microbiology.
You then remember a friend who was in the same situation and got through it by taking a “pill” that allowed him to fixate on his work like a hunter does on their prey.
Four text messages later followed by a short walk to and from the house of a friend of a friend, and suddenly you’re sitting in front of your book, the knot rapidly melting away. Euphoria comes over you as read your textbook. In fact, it’s the only thing you want to do. You have no desire to go on Facebook, text your friends, or even eat or sleep for the next 12 hours.
This story is not one of a kind. According to a recently published review from the University of Tennessee, one in five university students claim to have abused prescription stimulants such as Adderall, Ritalin, or Concerta. Out of these students 90% have not been diagnosed ADHD.
The use of these drugs as study aids has become more and more common. Over time it has become more socially acceptable, given rise to ADHD diagnoses and has sparked a growing debate about whether this type of “cognitive enhancement” should be considered no different from drinking coffee or abuse of anabolic steroids. In an unstable economy, CEOs are taking Ritalin to work longer hours and some among the aging baby-boomer population consider Adderall a viable way of competing for jobs with the younger, more vigorous generations.
Along with worries about grades and future careers, some students justify Adderall or Ritalin abuse by claiming that they have undiagnosed ADHD. The gaping hole in this logic is that one should then see a doctor for a diagnosis and legal prescription, but perhaps their condition prevents them from doing so. Those with ADHD find it extremely hard to filter and prioritize the information that they are receiving from the outside world, or the thoughts inside their head. As one sufferer said, “I would sit in class without being able to understand anything…I could hear it but I would feel like there was a thin film of white noise hindering me from absorbing the information. So I would sit in class and leave without learning.” If your mind cannot decide what to pay attention to, and you have to continually consciously sort through thoughts and distractions, it’s easy to understand why you might miss a doctor’s appointment or not think to make one.
However, unless a person has been coping with this disorder since childhood, there is a strong possibility that the symptoms that he or she is calling ADHD are actually caused by stress and anxiety.
When a person has ADHD, the reward system of their brain is dysfunctional. This means that when he or she is thinking of doing something, they will have a great deal of trouble gauging how rewarding it would be in comparison to something else. This makes their brain unable to tell them which of their possible thoughts and actions should be encouraged.
The network of brain cells that calculate one’s incentives rely on a chemical dopamine used to communicate between the cells. If dopamine activity is hindered, the cells cannot communicate and the brain cannot calculate what it should pay attention to. People with ADHD have reduced dopamine activity. This might be due to their genes, such as when ADHD that shows up in childhood, but chronic stress and the resulting depression are also correlated with reduced dopamine activity.
Regardless of how it happens, anyone that has difficulty paying attention and functioning effectively should speak to a physician before taking what is potentially a harmful drug. The chemicals in the drug trademarked Adderall are amphetamines that act similarly to drugs like cocaine and crystal meth. The same is true of methylphenidates, commonly known as Ritalin and Concerta. They increase the amount of dopamine being used to communicate between cells, which balance people out if they have ADHD, but in the average person these drugs produce a strongly addictive euphoria by acting on the reward system. That is every time you take Adderall when you do not need it, you teach yourself that it is a pleasurable thing that you should keep doing.
One might say that an addiction to a drug that turns you into a study-monster could actually be a good thing. The problem is that amphetamine addiction causes brain damage. Aside from the cognitive problems brought on from killing brain cells, high doses lower dopamine, mimicking ADHD. Some studies have shown damage to reward systems, others have not. However, studies have conclusively shown that taking Adderall is bad for your heart. It increases blood pressure and heart rate and puts the user at significantly greater risk of cardiovascular disease.
So after considering the risks of taking Adderall, one should probably consider that regular exercise also greatly increases attention span, relieves stress by keeping your dopamine levels down and is also being beneficial for your heart and general health.