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Dangerous Side Effects Of Study Drugs

The Evolution of Study Drugs

Not long ago, college students would turn to sugar, nicotine, and gum to push them through an all-nighter. Academia has always been an environment that begets stress. Within it, students learn the brutal nature of deadlines, the necessity of time management, and how to prioritize. Along with these skills, the environment is competitive, motivating the young minds of the world to strive for perfection.

At a macro level, these lessons prepare students to not only become great scholars but to excel in the workplace. And managing this bundle of responsibility has always been a task that turned a student into a great contributor to society.

Today, rather than ‘biting the bullet’ to mitigate these stresses and enhance performance, students turn to prescription stimulants or study drugs, most commonly Adderall. They use these drugs to improve focus, improve cognitive function, and increase energy. It’s estimated that 1 out of every 5 college students has taken a ‘study drug’ at least once in their college career.

But prescription stimulants were not invented for the masses to use as a ‘brain-enhancer’ in academia or the workplace—they were approved by the FDA to treat ADD (attention deficit disorder), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and narcolepsy. By default, then, when a student uses a ‘study drug’ they are not prescribed by a doctor, then they are abusing a substance that can be potentially dangerous to them.

But what threat do these performance-enhancing drugs pose for our society? And, what are the side effects of study drugs? Read below to find out.

How They Work

We could simply label the long list of side effects that tack along with study drugs, but it is paramount that we first identify exactly how study drugs affect the brain and body. Any FDA approved medication is going to have a black box of ‘what could go wrongs’ that are, for the most part, ignored. But the unorthodox nature of this medication—being that those who do not need it are using it frequently—calls for a more thorough dive into the engineering of the substance itself.

The Brain

Neurotransmitters are defined as chemical messengers that ‘communicate’ between neurons (nerve cells) and other cells in the body. They can influence both psychological and physical functions from mood, heart rate, sleep, appetite, to fear. In essence, they are the brain’s messengers that communicate to other parts of the body.

There are different types of these neurotransmitters and each one has a specific purpose or role within the system of the brain. Take GABA, for instance, also known as Gamma-aminobutyric acid, which is responsible for motor control, vision, and balancing our calmness to fight anxiety. A drug like Xanax will stimulate GABA to overrule anxiety.

The two neurotransmitters we’re going to focus on are dopamine and norepinephrine.

Dopamine

Dopamine is responsible for the coordination of body movements, inciting pleasure within our reward system (think happiness at large), and our motivation (willfulness to be productive).

Norepinephrine

Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter directly linked to the brain’s ‘fight or flight’ protocol. Its role is to shift gears into place once there is a situation of immense danger or stress.

Study Drugs & The Brain

Not all study drugs work in the same manner. By and large, however, they are amphetamine-based. Take Adderall, for instance, which is a combination of four amphetamine salts. For sake of an explanation, we will use this generality of the amphetamine-based study drug to break down the science behind the medication.

When a study drug is taken, it stimulates the aforementioned neurotransmitters in the prefrontal cortex; dopamine and norepinephrine. This stimulation then causes the brain to produce an excess of each neurotransmitter, which then affects certain functions of the brain. The more dopamine produced, the higher a person’s state of awareness will become, energy levels will increase, and the reward center will activate, often resulting in a sense of euphoria.

This increase in dopamine then assists with motivation, pushing the user to become more productive. It also increases cognitive function. Norepinephrine, on the other hand, works to stabilize and ‘calm’ the mind, which is why those who use a study drug like Adderall can feel entirely content and focused whilst working.

In short: study drugs stimulate the messengers in our brain linked to our executive functions, which ‘enhance’ the functions themselves but do not actually raise intelligence.

Study Drugs & The Body

The type of study pills we’re referring to are classified as stimulants. Stimulants raise blood pressure and heart rate, cause shortness of breath, reduce appetite, activate the metabolism, and increase body temperature.

This is why, before a doctor prescribes cognitive-enhancing drugs, they must screen their patients for any heart or liver condition that could react negatively to a stimulant. This ‘upping’ of the body’s natural rhythm can be fatal for those predisposed to certain conditions.

Why Study Drugs are Prescribed

When speaking on the side effects of study drugs, it is important to note why they were originally engineered. Most cognitive-enhancing drugs are FDA-approved to treat ADHD, ADD, or narcolepsy. The reason being is those suffering from these conditions often suffer from imbalanced brain chemistry; particularly a lack of dopamine.

In which, a drug like Adderall, which stimulates dopamine, will then work to balance the brain’s chemistry as a whole. Lastly, these drugs were intended to be short-term solutions to problems created by those specific disorders. Prolonged use was never intended for these types of stimulant medications but, with their tremendous efficacy, this idea slowly died.

Today it is not out of the ordinary for people to receive an Adderall prescription at a young age and take it well through adulthood. Sadly, it is this paradigm shift that has led to the overprescribing of such medication, which has resulted in the intense side effects which we are going to address below.

For Those Not In Need

Being that a drug like Adderall stimulates the brain and creates balance in one that has a dopamine deficiency—for those that do not suffer from an imbalance, this influx in dopamine can produce an efficacy well beyond that of people with ADD or ADHD. We’ll explain.

By producing a surplus of dopamine, the intended effects are amplified. The euphoria can pay distinct similarities to the ‘high’ from a narcotic, the increase in energy can keep a student alert throughout an entire night, and the intense focus can keep them on task and driven for hours on end. A student that does not require the drug for balance will experience the benefits of these brain-enhancement pills tenfold.

The issue here is that these drugs somewhat affect all regions of the brain and those who do not need the drug—which makes up a large volume of users—who take it for prolonged periods of time can create a permanent imbalance in the brain’s chemistry.

Side Effects of Study Drugs

Being that these neuroenhancing drugs are amphetamine-based and stimulants by nature, what sort of side effects result from their prolonged use? Unfortunately, there are many.

Dependency & Tolerance

As with any drug that manipulates neurotransmitters, tolerance can be created, and dependency will follow, which are the breeding grounds for a study drug addiction. What occurs is this: a patient will take Adderall to compensate for a deficiency in their brain chemistry and experience wonderful results (Adderall, at first, was considered somewhat of a miracle pill in medicine). Over time, the dosage they were originally prescribed loses its ability to produce the same effect. Thus, the doctor will up the dosage. This cycle can result in the upping of dosage multiple times in a patient’s life.

The brain then begins to regard the study drug as the neurotransmitter itself, producing less and less of the chemical naturally. If the drug is removed from the equation, the patient can experience the characteristic withdrawals of meth addiction, which prompts them to continue using.

Addiction

Once the switch between need and want occurs with study drugs, addiction can form. Being that the brain regards the drug as an integral facet of its systematic structure, without it, extreme fatigue, depression, loss of motivation, increased appetite, and anxiety ensues. Now, patients need to use the drug in hopes to be ‘normal’ once again, which fosters addiction.

In 2016, over 100,000 addicts admitted themselves into rehab with Adderall addictions. While study drugs are not perceived in the same fashion as, say, opioids or benzos, by their very nature, being that they’re a stimulant, they are an addictive substance. However, there is still more work to do in researching study drugs and their addictive properties. Our understanding is limited.

Depression

We spoke on dopamine and its role within the brain; specifically, how it interacts with our reward system. Our reward system is responsible for our overall happiness. You eat chocolate and it releases dopamine, effectively saying ‘this makes me feel good.’ Which then creates a link between chocolate and happiness.

The same thing occurs with study drugs. The reward system creates a link to the stimulant, relying on the chemicals stimulated for happiness. Without this crutch, the depletion of dopamine can leave a patient extremely fatigued and depressed, with the potential of having suicidal thoughts.

Depression is a common side effect that comes with the prolonged use of study drugs.

Anxiety

Being that dopamine and norepinephrine work to create a sense of ‘calmness’ or ‘serenity’ within the brain, when this overstimulation comes to a stop, the imbalance can induce anxiety. The brain panics: ‘where did my neurotransmitters go?’ and produces waves of anxiety that can be crippling at their worst. This anxiety then calls for more drug use, which can further feed the addiction.

Psychosis

Even worse than addiction, Adderall and other common types of study drugs has been known to cause psychosis. The link between Adderall and psychosis is a fickle one, however, with healthcare professionals unsure as to exactly why it causes it. There is no real pattern to the relationship. With that being said, .1% of study drug users develop psychosis.

Researchers believe that, due to the drug being a stimulant, it can trigger mental illnesses that were otherwise dormant. Take a patient predisposed to schizophrenia for example—a condition that is dormant until triggered. Unbeknownst to them, they are at risk of developing the condition. Then they abuse a study drug which acts as a trigger for the illness, throwing them headfirst into psychosis.

Another theory is that, due to the way stimulant drugs disrupt sleeping patterns, the sleep deprivation contributes to psychosis. Users can experience audio and visual hallucinations, night terrors and paranoia. Psychosis spurred by study drug use is one of the rarer side effects, but it does occur.

General Side Effects

Any stimulant is going to pose health risks to the user. The long list of side effects rolls on and on—and, shockingly, they pay close similarities to that of methamphetamine usage. Here are some of the general side effects you can find on any FDA-approved stimulant.

  • Anxiety
  • Excessive Sweating
  • Agitation
  • Irritation
  • Muscle Spasms
  • Irregular Heartbeat
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Increase Blood Pressure
  • Tremors
  • Hallucinations
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Reduced Sex Drive

The Problem

The problem with neuroenhancing drugs is rather simple; users don’t think them to be drugs at all. However, the DEA classifies stimulants of any kind as a Schedule II substance, which puts it in the same bracket as meth, fentanyl, and cocaine. Those in academia or in the workplace regard the drug as a tool which helps them with their productivity and workmanship. It’s FDA approved and we’re not using it in the name of recreation, so it can’t possibly be bad for me?

Unfortunately, this logic is the vehicle driving forward study drug addiction. As you now know by what is stated in this article, study drugs are stimulants, which means if abused, they are not only addictive but dangerous. As our society continues to rely on stimulant drugs for enhanced brain performance, it is important to know the truth of these little ‘helpers’ people are popping before the workday.

Little is known about the long-term effects of these drugs. They have been around for too short a time to truly understand their harmfulness. With the facts we have, there’s certainly a possibility that we’re in for a rude awakening.

Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1524735/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3489818/