Adderall and Its Use by Pitt Students Studying for Finals in Hillman Library

by Sarah Bonaffini

Adderall use is on the rise, and it’s become a controversial issue, especially on college campuses. It’s a neuroenhancer, a drug that improves mental function. Adderall consists of two molecules called dextroamphetamine and amphetamine, which modulate several neurotransmitters in the brain including serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine (DA). It is commonly prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as well as to treat narcolepsy (a sleep disorder that causes daytime sleepiness).

Amphetamine works by increasing energy levels, concentration, and motivation. American bomber pilots used amphetamine to stay awake during long missions and punk rockers widely abused the drug in the ‘80s underground music scene. I’m sure you recall the song “Come on Eileen”; the lyrical masterpiece was constructed by the band Dexy’s Midnight Runners, which is named after a drug called Dexedrine, similar to Adderall.

Despite the enthusiasm for the orange pill, it can be deadly when combined with alcohol or strenuous activity. You could have asked Tom Simpson, a professional British cyclist, if he hadn’t died from his lethal combination of exercise and Adderall.

Amphetamine is a stimulant whereas alcohol is a depressant – the combination of which is conceptually the same as Jager bombs or Fourlokos. But before you consider calling your drug dealers, you should step back and see how this drug affects your brain.

Adderall is considered a psychostimulant, or a drug that affects cognitive function. Amphetamine affects specific receptors in the brain. For example, it affects components of the brain’s “reward pathway” including the striatum, nucleus accumbens and the ventral striatum. This explains the sense of euphoria one gets from taking the drug and its recreational use. Adderall also increases the amount of dopamine in the synapse, the junction between two neurons, which increases dopamine’s post-synaptic efficacy. In that respect it resembles cocaine, which also works by increasing the amount of dopamine in the synaptic cleft.

Increased DA also increases focus and attention because it supports states of high brain arousal and stimulates body circuits involved in stress, according to John Teissere, an Assistant Professor of Biology and Neuroscience, as reported by The Muhlenberg Weekly. Over the summer, CBS News’ “60 Minutes” covered the issues surrounding Adderall and Ritalin, two similar drugs. What was most interesting were the different perspectives on Adderall usage. Nora D. Volkow, a psychiatrist and Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, stated on the program, “There are side effects of the drug. One is addiction, another is psychosis. It is not worth the risk. You are playing with a drug that has potentially very adverse side effects. Addiction is not a pretty face.”

In the same program, Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, stated that Adderall can hurt performance in certain people and make others overly focused, creating tunnel vision and the loss of creativity. However, she maintains that one day cosmetic neurology will be as common as cosmetic surgery.

An advocate for neuroenhancers, Farah stated in a 2008 Nature article, “We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function. In a world in which human work-spans and life-spans are increasing, cognitive enhancement tools — including the pharmacological — will be increasingly useful for improved quality of life and extended work productivity, as well as to stave off normal and pathological age-related cognitive declines. Safe and effective cognitive enhancers will benefit both the individual and society.

Some students who abstain from neuroenhancers say they provide an unfair advantage to students who do use the drugs without prescription, according to “60 Minutes.”

Regardless of your stance on the issue, there are many things that we do not know about the drug; accordingly, students without a prescription for Adderall or Ritalin should not take them. Side effects of the drug cause detrimental effects to your heart and blood pressure. Research has yet to determine the long-term effects of this drug on the body.

According to a study published in Addiction in 2005, the non-medical use of psychostimulants like Adderall is second in prevalence only to marijuana in terms of illegal drug use. Because the majority of people using Adderall without a prescription are not acquainted with its side effects and drug interactions, this use presents a potentially dangerous activity on college campuses and, thus, one that deserves attention.

In a sample size of 10,904 students surveyed from 119 colleges all over the country, researchers found that 6.9 percent of them had tried a psychostimulant at one point in their life, with smaller percentages of them having tried it in the last year or month. However, these statistics ranged from no use at certain schools to 25 percent at others.

We were interested in discovering how drug use at the University of Pittsburgh compared to these national rates of use and what the motivations and characteristics of our students were. According to the Addiction study, Northeastern schools with competitive admission standards are the most likely institutions to have high rates of non-medical Adderall use. So, it would not be surprising to find that Pitt would have higher rates of use than other schools around the country. Nationally, the type of students most likely to have tried Adderall is the white, male, low GPA, greek-life member living in a co-ed dorm or fraternity house. Unfortunately, we did not include variables in our questionnaire identical to the ones used in this national study, and so were not able to make comparisons among race, GPA and Greek membership. But, based on the questions that we did ask, we were still able to observe several comparisons among the data.

Our study included 191 respondents which is approximately twice the average number surveyed per school in the above-mentioned study. Of these students, 49 percent were male, the majority was seniors, and there was an equal distribution between science majors and non-science majors. For the University of Pittsburgh, we found that 30 percent of the students surveyed had tried Adderall without a prescription at some point in their life (4.7 percent currently had a prescription).

This proportion is much larger than was expected; in fact, it was higher than any of the 119 schools surveyed in the study in addiction. This inflation is most likely due to the fact that the questionnaires were distributed in the library toward the end of the semester. We speculate that the type of student likely to be cramming for finals in the library would also be more likely to use or have used Adderall. Like other studies, we also found men to be more likely to abuse the drug than women (58 percent of people who said they have tried Adderall were men). Despite our relative lack of freshman and graduate respondents, we found that older students were also more likely to have used Adderall. We were expecting to see a steady increase in Adderall usage as students got older because of increased exposure to people with access to the drug. However, we found a sharp increase from freshman year to sophomore year. Either we did not sample enough freshmen to get an accurate picture of the class or it seems that most new students wait until they gain some experience in the university before they start experimenting with psychostimulants. In either case, only 1 percent of respondents had never heard of it and 7 percent didn’t know what it is used to treat - suggesting a widespread exposure and familiarity with the drug.

Of the 57 students who have tried Adderall without a prescription, we asked them to describe what they use it for, which classes they find it helpful for, its effectiveness, and whether or not they consider themselves dependent. The most common use was for test preparation although 12 percent of the Adderall users have taken it recreationally. Our subject group represents a wide array of students and thus these students have taken Adderall for almost every imaginable class. Despite our even representation of science and non-science majors, the majority of the classes for which people took Adderall were intro- and upper-level science courses. The average usefulness as rated by these students was 4.5 out of 5. Eighty-eight percent of those who reported past Adderall use said that they would use Adderall again although only one person out of 57 considered himself dependent.

Although it would have been interesting to see how Adderall usage correlated with GPA, race, campus involvement and various other factors, our study was meant to be a cursory and mostly casual look into drug use at Pitt. Had we more time, resources and reliable survey methods, we could have conducted a more thorough investigation. Be that as it may, our survey has unearthed several interesting aspects of Adderall use on our campus. It is clearly an important part of many students’ study habits despite its potential health risks through unregulated use. As such, there should continue to be a strong university effort to research this behavior and educate the student body. As Adderall becomes more readily available, and students become more desperate for good grades, it would not be surprising to see an increase in non-prescription use of Adderall in the years ahead.

In closing, we wish to urge students to be responsible when making decisions about experimentation or reliance on drugs that they do not have prescriptions for. Besides their potential for abuse, the reason that drugs like Adderall are regulated by medical practitioners is because they can pose a variety of health risks to users who have not been properly evaluated. Pre-existing medical conditions, other medications and certain behaviors can all interact with a drug like Adderall to cause dangerous side effects. We hope that this article has been enlightening to the Pitt student body, but we wish for our readers to remain healthy Panthers.