There’s no denying the popularity of prescription stimulants. Ritalin (methylphenidate) was the fourth most prescribed medicine in 2003 and it was purchased by over 58 thousand Americans in 2006. With its popularity came a tidal wave of abuse that still goes on to this day. Many high school and college students abuse this drug under the impression that it will get them better grades, but studies show that Ritalin abusers are actually not improving their scores at all, and are instead putting their health at risk.
A 2014 National Institute of Drug Abuse study shows about 2 percent of the nation’s 12th graders regularly abuse Ritalin. Most of them would be surprised to learn, however, that the drug behaves similarly to cocaine in many ways, especially when crushed and insufflated. Studies dating as far back as 1995 indicate that Ritalin produces the same type of high as cocaine in its users. This high is so strong and similar to cocaine that, when presented with the two options, lab animals have chosen to routinely self-administer the former as often as the latter.
Ritalin works by increasing the levels of dopamine (the chemical that the brain releases as a reward for good behavior). By preventing dopamine transporters from removing dopamine as normal, Ritalin causes the dopamine to stay in place and accumulate, producing a euphoric high. According to a 2005 survey, 25 percent of college students misused their attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) medication to get this feeling.
What many students fail to realize, however, is that getting higher does not mean that they are getting smarter. A Ritalin abuser is likely to confuse the euphoric high as feeling more “focused”, when in reality they are merely riding the temporary effects of a dopamine rush. While they may feel more motivated to take notes and quizzes, they are still largely operating within the same learning capacities. Basically, they are mistaking an increase in motivation as an increase in intelligence.
Above all else, Ritalin is meant to cure a disruptive mental disorder. In this sense, Ritalin is more of a behavioral modifier than a performance enhancing drug, and it will not work the same on people without attention-deficit disorders. The ADHD medicine has an opposite effect on healthy individuals and makes them focused, but flighty. Studies show that people without ADHD who took Ritalin paid attention for longer periods of time, sure, but they were actually less focused. This oxymoron is explained by “selective attention”, a phrase that means you are intensely concentrating on a task, but also constantly shifting your attention from one task to another. In other words, Ritalin abusers have a form of deep concentration that they cannot control.
Obviously this lack of control does not make for the best test scores. If anything, the connection between ADHD medication and improved test scores is psychosomatic at best. A 2011 study shows that participants performed better on a test when they were given a placebo and told it was Ritalin. On a different day, when they were told that they would not receive the “Ritalin”, the same subjects performed noticeably worse on all of their tests. They appeared fidgety and distressed. Even more interesting, most of the subjects reported feeling a euphoric high after given the placebo. This shows that a large portion of Ritalin’s supposedly beneficial effects on academic grades could be all in the mind.
Although the cognitive effects of Ritalin on healthy individuals remains debatable, further research reveals possible risks for physical side effects in Ritalin abusers. College athletes who excessively take Ritalin have been shown to be twice as likely to be at risk for sudden death or irregular heartbeat. Researchers surmise this happens from Ritalin propensity to rise the body’s core temperature. This can eventually cause longstanding health problems when combined with strenuous physical activity.
In short, abusing Ritalin can rob a person of their own creative potential and cause major health concerns for athletes. On top of that, a student who abuses Ritalin without a prescription is arguably neglecting their own talents and abilities. Ritalin’s potential to substantially impair cognition in healthy minds makes its widespread misuse in our nation’s educational systems especially tragic, and more needs to be done to warn students of the dangers that stem from misusing prescription stimulants.