Are Study Drugs Addictive?
In recent years study drugs have become a topic of much controversy. At first, these ‘brain-enhancing’ or ‘focus-inducing’ pills were accepted with open arms by the healthcare industry. This is something we’ll touch on more but essentially, Ritalin and Adderall (two common types of study drugs) were regarded as a miracle drug that could make even the rowdiest of children simmer, grant focus to the hyperactive thinker, and mitigate the symptoms of ADD (attention deficit disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder).
Today, however, we are witnessing a paradigm shift in the way we perceive and interact with study drugs. The unfortunate reality is that, due to the nature of the drug itself, they are easily abused. A prevalent facet of America’s college (and even high school now) culture is to rely on Adderall, Ritalin, or other pills as a crutch for cramming massive volumes of school work in short amounts of time; ever heard of the all-nighter?
The word ‘abuse’ then wears different clothes, as these college students do not consider their pursuits to be ‘drug use,’ rather they ‘medicate’ in hopes to become more efficient with their school work. They consider it a productive exercise, as they are bettering themselves intellectually and doing so by the use of an FDA approved medication. It is not a drug for college students, it’s a study aid.
And, of course, as with most FDA approved psychoactive substances, there is always going to be a small percentage of users that take the drug recreationally. But this then begets the question: are study drugs addictive? Because if they are, this ‘it’s not a drug’ mentality could very well be the snake in the grass.
A difficult facet of study drugs is that they are still in their infantile phase. Researches and healthcare professionals have yet to understand exactly how they alter brain chemistry and what sort of effects will spill into adulthood for those prescribed ‘study drugs’ from an early age.
But the facts are harrowing. Ritalin, Adderall’s predecessor, came into play in the early 1990s following the widespread acceptance of Prozac. It was initially a drug meant to treat ADD and ADHD—with the prescription rate remaining relatively low, and those being prescribed in somewhat rare circumstances.
Roll the clock forward twenty years and that prescription rate has quadrupled (statistics point out that faulty analytics could have it wrong and this change could be as high as 8x). Worst yet, today America accounts for 80% of the world’s study drug use, leaving 1/5th for the rest of Earth’s population. Lastly, rather than a drug prescribed for those with severe cases of ADHD ADD, and narcolepsy, it was given out for mild cases of these conditions, weight loss, and sometimes just to help people focus.
Overnight, a somewhat niche medication became the vehicle driving forward a billion dollar industry. Now does that mean that Adderall or the likes of is addictive?
The short answer is no. The long answer, yes.
How They Work
To understand whether Adderall is addictive, it is important to identify exactly how it manipulates and alters brain chemistry. But first, regarding study drug perscription stimulants, here are the most popular medications being prescribed and abused in America. At a molecular level, many of these work synonymously to each other.
Adderall is the combination of four amphetamine salts. When ingested, it stimulates the neurotransmitters dopamine which is linked to the reward center or pleasure center of the brain. This stimulation then causes the brain to release excess amounts of dopamine which in turn provides clarity, focus, and euphoria. It also provides a sense of calmness that works to centralize and streamline thinking patterns.
To those suffering from a mental disorder, particularly those who have dopamine deficiencies, this stimulation creates balance. For users that do not need study drugs and take them for ‘brain-enhancement,’ this stimulation can induce a ‘high’ similar to any party drug’ that amplifies dopamine production. This reward they experience can prompt them to use again.
A Short-Term Solution
It is imperative that we speak on the original intention for study drugs as a whole; to be a short-term solution for those in need. Adderall was never intended to be a lifelong medication, as by its nature the drug does not exactly focus on one area of the brain (nor does it work to ‘heal’ it). Rather, Adderall nukes the entire brain, affecting areas that need not be affected in hopes to right a problem.
Over the years, the tremendous efficacy of the drug has caused people to use more and more. They take Adderall and experience the effects and say, ‘how did I ever live without this drug before?’ No longer is it regarded as a band-aid for a problem that will need to be addressed alternatively in the future, it becomes a vital necessity to a person’s wellbeing. But what we’re dealing with here is a stimulant.
Stimulants and Addiction
When study drugs are taken, they increase the production and release of dopamine and norepinephrine (another neurotransmitter). Along with the aforementioned effects, an increase in energy and loss of appetite occur in tandem. It follows the same procedure as any other stimulant; study drugs raise heart rate and blood pressure, activate the metabolism, and shift the system into hyper-drive. It’s also important to mention that study drugs do not make you smarter, they simply stimulate your brain to help you focus for a longer period of time.
We will address the dangers and side effects of study drugs a bit further down but, being that they are stimulants, if overused they can create dependency. We know the story of opioids; someone starts taking a painkiller to mitigate pain, they create a tolerance which calls for higher doses, and in the blink of an eye that 10mg dose becomes a 50mg dose that still isn’t enough.
The same phenomenon occurs with Adderall.
Dependency, Tolerance, and Addiction
The study drug prescription rate boom is due in part to dependency and tolerance. The process goes as follows: a patient is prescribed Adderall or the likes of, begins to medicate, and experiences fantastic results from the ‘brain-enhancer.’ Over time, the brain begins to build a tolerance to the stimulation of dopamine and norepinephrine—not necessarily rejecting it but absorbing it less and less.
Thus, the patient returns to their doctor claiming their prescription no longer suffices. They need a higher dosage. In which their demand is met. This upping of dosage can occur multiple times in a single a year with a patient first starting at a .5mg prescription and climbing to volumes four times as high.
This influx of Adderall then begins to strip away the brain’s dopamine receptors. The natural function of the brain is hindered and, for those with deficiencies, the small amount of dopamine the brain originally produced becomes an arduous task; in short, the brain can no longer produce what it could on its own. It needs Adderall.
The dosage of the neuroenhancing drugs climbs simultaneously to the decrease in the brain’s natural ability to regulate its chemistry. This tolerance begets dependency and this dependency fosters addiction.
Once the brain is flooded with Adderall, it regards the drug as a natural neurotransmitter. Without it, a patient who has built dependency will feel:
Patients addicted to Adderall report that, without it, they fall into an almost sedated state where rising from their bed is a nearly impossible task. This is accurate, as the brain relies on Adderall for energy.
Being that the brain relied on the stimulation for focus, without Adderall they become less apt to focus than before their introduction to the drug.
Depression and Anxiety
Having used Adderall for an extended period, the brain relied on the drug to activate its reward center and induce both happiness and calmness. Without it, the brain cannot regulate it’s ‘happy’ neurotransmitters autonomously. This break in the brain’s balance can send a user spiraling downward into depression and anxiety.
While the above can be regarded as withdrawal symptoms, often they are what cause a user to continue taking study drugs. The formula of thought is simple: ‘without Adderall (or any other common type of study drug), I am a tired, unfocused, sad and anxious mess, so why would I stop taking it?'
This then sounds a siren, furthering their dependency and fueling their addiction.
For Those Not in Need
For users that do not have a condition which requires study drug medication, the effects above can be worse. Terrifyingly so. Consider this: we have a healthy balanced brain that perfectly regulates its neurotransmitters. We’ll call it Brain A.
Brain A is wonderful. It is healthy, functional, and unhindered by any substance or deficiency. Brain A is then introduced to Adderall. And my oh my! The dopamine release causes immense joy and focus, enhancing productiveness, motivation, and efficiency, to the point that Brain A finds great pleasure in doing tasks that were otherwise boring.
Once Adderall leaves the system, Brain A has experienced an enhancement that whispers: ‘there’s more.’ In which Brain A takes the Adderall again and again and again. It doesn’t need it but the effects themselves are addicting. In a short amount of time, Brain A can be introduced (since they’re not monitored by a doctor) to a volume of Adderall that would otherwise take a patient years to reach in a matter of months.
Worse yet, Brain A doesn’t have a dopamine deficiency, so the stimulation occurs in a degree much higher than an ADD or ADHD sufferer. Thus, when Brain A stops taking Adderall, the brain must heal the wasteland left behind by the bombing. This can cause psychosis, extreme depression and anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and withdrawal.
Thus, Brain A says ‘wow, I should take an Adderall because this feels awful.’ In which more is taken and, once the Adderall is removed from the system, Brain A is imbalanced, left in a state incomparable to how it operated before the introduction to study drugs. Left in a state more prone to damage than a patient who has taken the drug for years.
Being that Adderall is an amphetamine, the answer to ‘is Adderall addictive’ should be an automatic yes. Meth addicts and Adderall addicts are handled in the same fashion within the healthcare industry.
In 2016, over 100,000 patients were admitted into rehab for Adderall or Adderall-related addiction. While we do not know exactly what threat study drugs pose to users in the future, we do know they can be addictive.
Why the Silence?
You might find yourself asking, ‘why do I hear about benzodiazepine and opioid addiction but not study drugs?’ If they are addictive, as we have concluded, would the prescription rate alone not draw forth an epidemic?
To speak with candor, while study drugs can be addictive, they are not as deadly as opioids or benzos. Addiction to Adderall typically takes more time to build and the drug, while pairing horribly with other substances, is not as deadly in comparison. The college student who takes a study drug to pull an all-nighter and write an essay is not at the same risk as a college student who mixes Xanax and alcohol.
Lastly, study drugs can be a miracle for those in need. As with most FDA approved medication, ‘they’re not all bad’ is a theme that applies. Study drugs tend to be what we could consider a ‘niche’ addiction at this point in time but that does not mean they should be addressed any less than the other epidemics we face.
If you happen to be reading this because you or someone you know is facing a study drug addiction, the time to act is now. Remember, study drugs are psychoactive stimulants that can trigger depression, anxiety, and in worst cases psychosis. The sad truth is that most who take Adderall could not, in their wildest dreams, think of comparing it to a drug like meth. They do not regard the medication as a drug at all, nor do they think the consequences of its usage can be deadly.
Science says otherwise.