Stimulants: How can something so popular be so damaging?


Do these ‘cognitive enhancers’ increase performance?

In recent years drugs like Adderall, used in the treatment of ADHD, have become familiar to university students across the US and UK. Many students have abused prescription stimulants like Adderall in the belief that it will enhance their ability to focus. The term ‘cognitive enhancement’ has been popularised by the media, with frequent debates over whether stimulants should be used by healthy individuals to perform more efficiently. However, it is not so simple since no drug has just one effect. Despite a lack of understanding as to how these drugs work, and what side effects they may have, a remarkable number of university students try Adderall and other prescription stimulants to help with their studies. One US college reported a huge 35.5% of undergraduate students to have taken supposedly ‘cognitive enhancing’ drugs for nonmedical purposes. [1]  Perhaps if these students were more aware of the true effects of these drugs, this would not be the case.

At this point it is interesting to note that very few studies have been done into the effects of stimulants on people without ADHD. One study reported that there was no correlation between performance in complex memory tasks and the administration of stimulants. [1] It was also found that participants believed they focused better and managed to work harder and for longer when they thought they had been given stimulants, but in fact had been administered a placebo.

Whilst it is typically university students who turn to prescription stimulants in a nonmedical context, there are other factors that appear to be linked to the use of these drugs. For example, students who use stimulants in a nonmedical scenario often get lower grades than students who do not use them. In addition, users are more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs. [2] However, it is not only university students who have caused the surge in stimulant use. Psychiatrists frequently diagnose children with ADHD, without the child necessarily meeting the criteria for this diagnosis. Those children are then prescribed stimulants such as Adderall when they may not actually need them. An appalling 1 in 7 male children in the US are now diagnosed with ADHD, despite the fact that many of them will not have it. [3] Moreover, these statistics have surged in more recent years, with around 11% of U.S. children having received a diagnosis of ADHD in 2011-2012, a rise of 42% from 2003-2004. Two-thirds of these children will also be medicated for their condition. [4] When growing up children will be both restless and inattentive, however this does not necessarily merit the label of ADHD.


Stimulants, such as Adderall, have become increasingly popular with University students in recent years.

Adderall is an amphetamine, which can be addictive and have many side effects, ranging from insomnia, irritability and difficulty having an orgasm, to hallucinations, sudden hypertension and in some cases sudden death. The more severe side effects were seen when an American Psychiatrist prescribed a young boy (who did not have ADHD according to his parents) Adderall in order to decrease occurrences of disruptive behaviour and to hopefully improve his grades. However, when this boy was just ten years old he started hallucinating and became suicidal, ending up being admitted to a psychiatric hospital, due to side effects from the Adderall. [5]

Some people who argue for the use of cognitive enhancers say that it goes hand in hand with trying to improve the human race, as many of us already do through learning, a good diet and regular exercise. Nevertheless there is a key difference between taking drugs and eating a portion of kale everyday: one is natural the other is not. We are more likely and able to understand what we are putting in our bodies when we eat food as well as what happens when we digest it. Conversely, when a drug enters our system there are a lot of unknowns. Many risks come with taking any kind of drug since different individuals react in different ways and unexpected side effects can occur due to these unknowns. Furthermore, the brains of children are continuing to develop and so the effects of drugs can be less predictable, and children may exhibit symptoms of different disorders as they grow up without actually having them. [6] It is vital that the awareness of the dangerous effects of so-called ‘cognitive enhancers’ is increased. Moreover, tighter regulations on the administration of drugs and diagnoses by psychiatrists need to be implemented.

Brain Damage Pic

Stimulants have a wide range of effects on the brain


[1] Lakhan & Kirchgessner (2012): Prescription stimulants in individuals with and without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: misuse, cognitive impact, and adverse effects

[2] Arria & DuPont (2010): Nonmedical Prescription St
imulant Use among College Students: Why We Need To Do Something and What We Need To Do

[3] Esquire (2014): The Drugging of the American Boy

[4] Visser et al. (2014): Trends in the Parent-Report of Health Care Provider-Diagnosed and Medicated Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: United States, 2003-2011

[5] New York Times (2012): Attention Disorder or Not, Pills to Help in School.

[6] Neurologists Warn Against ADHD Drugs To Help Kids Study



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