Adderall is the brand name for a combination of four amphetamine salts that is sold as a prescription stimulant used to treat the symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In the United States, between three to five percent of teenagers and roughly four percent of adults age 18 and older are living with ADHD.
Ritalin and Vyvanse are also medications that are used to treat ADHD, but Adderall is overwhelmingly the most commonly prescribed, and while dangers of Adderall abuse have become well-documented within the past 10 to 15 years, it is still widely abused in college campuses across the country.
Part of the problem is that there is still a comparatively lower stigma surrounding Adderall as opposed to other drugs that have been classified as Schedule II, such as opioids or cocaine. Adderall abuse has also largely been normalized in academic settings, to the point where many students view taking even dangerously high amounts of Adderall to stay up all night cramming for a test or writing a paper as part of the typical college experience.
In fact, as of 2015, it was estimated that 17 percent of U.S. college students misuse Adderall, while the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), reported that in 2017, more than half a million young adults between ages 18 and 25 misused Adderall and other prescription stimulants for the first time.
Adderall has a high potential for abuse and addiction and can lead to debilitating heart problems, worsening mental health issues, and possibly fatal overdose.
How Does Adderall Work?
The different amphetamine components in Adderall work by targeting specific nerves and chemicals in the brain, also known as neurotransmitters, that are related to hyperactivity, focus, and impulse control.
Adderall is comprised of two central nervous system (CNS) stimulants, amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. When these two stimulants reach the brain, the act like the natural neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Dopamine is the “reward” neurochemical, which is why some people can feel “euphoric” when taking Adderall. Dopamine also prevents the brain from becoming distracted by small things, like a ping of a text message. Epinephrine kicks up the body’s fight-or-flight mode, and triggers alertness and clarity.
People diagnosed with ADHD have been found to have lower levels of these neurotransmitters as well as possible faulty receptors that do not produce these neurotransmitters properly.
Like other stimulants, Adderall works by increasing the levels of these neurotransmitters as well as making the receptors that create them function more efficiently. Like other stimulants, Adderall does this by entering the brain to bind with the receptors responsible for producing norepinephrine and dopamine, activating them into overstimulation to flood the brain and nervous system with both of these chemicals.
Adderall also boosts dopamine and norepinephrine by acting as a reuptake inhibitor. When the brain naturally releases norepinephrine and dopamine, once they are no longer needed, they are reabsorbed to be used again later. This reabsorption process is called reuptake, and Adderall blocks it from happening, letting the neurotransmitters build up in the synapses, making their effects more intense and last longer.
The effects of Adderall use include an increase in:
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
At high doses, someone engaging in Adderall abuse can also experience:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Dangerously high body temperature
- Increased risk of heart failure
- Increased risk of seizures
The Rise of Adderall as a Study Drug on College Campuses
There are multiple factors that have and continue to contribute to widespread abuse of Adderall as a study drug among college students. One major factor is that in many cases, Adderall is easily accessible for students trying to obtain it, even without a prescription.
According to a survey of college students with ADHD who had been prescribed and were taking Adderall, more than 50 percent of them reported having been approached by peers to sell their medication. On the other side of things, an overwhelming 92 percent of students using Adderall without a prescription reported as having gotten it from friends and peers.
Young people also have been largely conditioned to trust doctors as authority figures and will make the logical leap that because Adderall is a prescription medication, it can be misused or abused without consequence.
Another point of consideration is that, for many teenagers, college is the first time they are on their own as “real adults.” This new level of both freedom and responsibility can become overwhelming and create strong feelings of pressure, especially if they end up slipping academically, which can then lead to them abusing Adderall to try and fix the problem.
Also, if a student has a difficult time focusing or staying on task, they may incorrectly diagnose themselves as having ADHD and justify using Adderall without a prescription as self-medicating for a mental health issue they don’t actually have.
Roughly three-quarters of students who abuse Adderall and other prescription stimulants claim they do so for academic purposes, saying it not only helps them stay up later and make it easier to focus and study but also actively improves their grades and makes them “smarter.”
Adderall Misuse: All Risk and No Reward
The thing that students who regularly misuse Adderall non-medically as a study drug don’t realize is that not only does doing so come with a wide range of health risks, including heart and stomach problems, paranoia, psychosis, and even a stroke, it also doesn’t work.
In a 2017 study of college students who did not have ADHD but had been using Adderall to try and improve their academic performance, almost two-thirds of the students surveyed believed the drug had helped. But the accompanying medical analysis said otherwise.
For people without ADHD, Adderall does not significantly improve the cognitive functions it does when used by people with ADHD, such as planning, attention, memory, and mental flexibility. Researchers instead argue that students’ perception of their work being better while on Adderall is a placebo effect or that their perception has been skewed by the burst of energy Adderall does provide as a stimulant.
In fact, further research suggests it actually lowers functioning when used by students who don’t have ADHD. In a recent experiment, students without ADHD were given either Adderall or a placebo and made to perform reading comprehension and memory tests. The students taking Adderall not only didn’t do any better than the ones taking the placebo, on the sections involving memory they did worse than the students who were given the placebo.
When used as directed by students who have been professionally diagnosed with ADHD, Adderall can be extremely beneficial. However, students misusing it as a study drug will not only not receive any significant benefits from doing so, but will also put themselves at risk of dependence, addiction, and serious, potentially lethal medical problems.