There is a widespread belief that stimulant ADHD medicine can improve academic achievement, despite a lack of any scientific evidence demonstrating its success in people without ADHD.
These common medications, including Ritalin and Adderall, are Schedule II controlled substances, placing them in the same legal bracket as substances such as cocaine and methamphetamine. According to the study, 17% of students are also risking legal trouble as well as health problems.
Study author Kari Benson from the University of South Carolina (USC) first became aware of this drug misuse when studying social impairment in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a sophomore.
"People would ask me if I could get them Adderall or Ritalin," says Benson. "I realized that this was a pretty prevalent issue on campus, and I wanted to see what I could do about it."
People with ADHD often have difficulty paying attention and are more hyperactive than their peers. Stimulants can have a calming and focusing effect on people with ADHD and are prescribed for daily use in the form of tablets or capsules. As well improving ADHD symptoms, these stimulants can also improve self-esteem and social interactions.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there is a growing belief that ADHD medication can improve an individual's ability to learn. However, despite the drugs promoting wakefulness, no studies have found that they improve learning or thinking ability when taken by people who do not have ADHD.
Results from previous research into collegiate misuse of ADHD drugs have varied. "If you looked at individual studies, the rates of college student misuse were all over the place," says study author Prof. Kate Flory. "They ranged from 2% to 43%." As a result, the authors conducted a meta-analysis of data from 30 papers.
Students commonly obtained the Schedule II controlled substances 'from their friends'
The researchers found that 17% of college students misuse stimulant medications for ADHD, either taking medication without a prescription or taking a larger amount than prescribed.
The primary reason for misuse was to improve academic performance, but despite this, the results suggested that there may be some correlation between poor academic performance and ADHD medication misuse.
Stimulant ADHD medication was also used recreationally. Although the drugs were used for this purpose less frequently, the act of taking them with alcohol in order to prolong the amount of time a student can drink for is very dangerous.
"It makes it possible to drink beyond the normal limit," explains Benson. "So instead of passing out drunk, you might end up in the hospital having to get your stomach pumped."
NIDA state that there are many other adverse health effects that can be caused by the abuse of prescription stimulants, such as malnutrition, feeling of hostility and paranoia and, in extreme circumstances, serious cardiovascular complications, including stroke.
The most common source of stimulant ADHD medication was among friends, indicating that there may be a network of students sharing these drugs on most college campuses. A qualitative review of the 30 studies also suggested that fraternity and sorority membership, academic performance and other substance abuse were associated with misuse.
The next step for the researchers is to use the findings of their study - published in Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review - to examine specific characteristics associated with the misuse of the drugs, with a view to identifying targets for intervention programs on campuses.
"We have a substance abuse prevention and education office, and they have a group that's focused on prescription medications," says Flory. "We've pulled together an interdisciplinary group of researchers here at USC to apply for a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which would enable us to actually do an intervention on campus."
Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that college-aged students who occasionally used stimulant drugs have impaired brain activity linked to anticipation.