Thursday, December 18, 2008

Survey: College Students Say Illicit Use of ADHD Drugs Helps Their Ability To Study

Undergraduates who illegally use ADHD medication without a prescription say it’s worth the risk for one key benefit: enhancing their ability to study.

In a new study led by researchers from Duke University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, more than 5 percent of students surveyed reported using ADHD medication without a prescription during the past six months. Nine percent reported doing this since beginning college.

The Web-based survey of 3,407 students was taken in spring 2007 at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and at Duke. Ninety percent of respondents who reported using the medication without a prescription during the past six months said enhancing the ability to study was the reason they most often took stimulant drugs such as Ritalin, Adderall and Concerta for nonmedical purposes. And nearly 90 percent of these students felt it was effective in helping them study.

Nonacademic motives, such as “to get high,” were far less common.

Using ADHD medication without a prescription was more common among students
who reported more frequent use of alcohol and other substances during the past six months. However, it was also more likely to occur among students who felt that concentration and attention was a problem for them. In fact, many of the students reporting illicit use had attention difficulties similar to students who reported a current diagnosis of ADHD.

“Students without prescriptions use ADHD medication primarily to enhance academic performance and may do so to ameliorate attention problems that they experience as undermining their academic success,” according to the study, which appears in the online edition of the Journal of Attention Disorders. “Students perceived non-medical use to be beneficial despite frequent reports of adverse reactions.”

Side effects reported by students included 23.9 percent of respondents saying illicit ADHD medication “always” reduced their appetite, while 15.6 percent said the drugs “always” made it difficult to sleep. More than 7 percent reported that the drugs “always” made them irritable.

Despite the side effects, more than 70 percent of students believed that using ADHD medication without a prescription had been positive for them. More than 70 percent said they “never” worried about becoming addicted to the medication.

The research was led by David Rabiner, associate research professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke. Other researchers on the project were from Duke, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the University of Michigan.

The researchers noted that several past studies have shown more than 30 percent of students who illegally used ADHD medication did so to “get high,” but only 2.2 percent of respondents in this survey said they frequently used illicit ADHD medication for that purpose.

“Learning about the benefits that students perceive from nonmedical ADHD medication use may inform efforts to prevent this behavior,” Rabiner said.

This study and others like it have shown that the practice was more common at colleges and universities with tougher admission standards. These studies also revealed that most students using illicit ADHD medication tended to be white, belong to a fraternity or sorority, have lower GPAs and engage in substance use and other risky behaviors.

The authors of this study -- “Motives and Perceived Consequences of Nonmedical ADHD Medication Use by College Students: Are Students Treating Themselves for Attention Problems?” -- said the findings point to a need for further study of the academic, social and biomedical consequences of illicit ADHD medication use among college students.

“A limitation of this study is that we only learned how students believe using ADHD medication affects them,” said Rick Hoyle, a psychology professor at Duke. “How students are actually affected -- whether it truly helps them do better academically or whether it contributes to the use of other substances -- cannot be determined from our results. This would require following students across college and learning whether nonmedical ADHD medication predicts any of these other outcomes.”

The other authors of the study were E. Jane Costello, professor of medical psychology in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center; H. Scott Swartzwelder, clinical professor of psychiatry and psychology/neuroscience at Duke; Arthur Anastopoulos, a psychology professor and director of the ADHD clinic at UNC-Greensboro; and Sean Esteban McCabe, research associate professor at the Substance Abuse Research Center and Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

The study was funded by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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