Are ‘cognitive enhancers’ messing up the minds of high school students?

It's well known that cognitive enhancers like Ritalin and Adderall are all the rage in U.S. colleges. But what's less known is how the practice is starting to take off in high schools. As a recent New York Times article notes, this is potentially worrisome — and not just because of the rampant off-label use of these stimulants. What's troubling is that these drugs are highly addictive and could cause irreparable damage to still-developing brains.

College students are no stranger to drugs like Adderall and Ritalin. While intended for such things as the treatment of ADHD and narcolepsy, students have learned to use them as cognitive enhancers — drugs that dramatically increase alertness and focus. Given the pressures of college life, many students feel they have no choice but to use such drugs in this way.

Back in 2005, a University of Michigan study discovered that in the previous year 4.1% of American undergrads had taken prescription stimulants for off-label use. Other studies found even higher rates, including a 2002 study at a small college that found more than 35% of students using prescription stimulants non-medically in the previous year. Given how long ago the surveys were conducted, use has likely gone up even more.

And now it's trickling down to high schools. But unlike college students — who (arguably) have mature, developed brains — high school students are clearly at a sensitive time in their lives. Moreover, they may lack the experience and emotional faculties to deal with the potent effects of these drugs. From Alan Schwarz's article:

The D.E.A. lists prescription stimulants like Adderall and Vyvanse (amphetamines) and Ritalin and Focalin (methylphenidates) as Class 2 controlled substances - the same as cocaine and morphine - because they rank among the most addictive substances that have a medical use. (By comparison, the long-abused anti-anxiety drug Valium is in the lower Class 4.) So they carry high legal risks, too, as few teenagers appreciate that merely giving a friend an Adderall or Vyvanse pill is the same as selling it and can be prosecuted as a felony.

While these medicines tend to calm people with A.D.H.D., those without the disorder find that just one pill can jolt them with the energy and focus to push through all-night homework binges and stay awake during exams afterward. "It's like it does your work for you," said William, a recent graduate of the Birch Wathen Lenox School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Doctors are particularly worried as no one's exactly sure what the long-term effects of these drugs will be. Children have prefrontal cortexes that are not fully developed, and these drugs are known to change the chemistry of the brain fundamentally. Now while the long-term effects may not be known, the shorter term impacts are becoming increasingly obvious, including depression, mood swings, heart problems, and horrifying withdrawal symptoms.

In terms of statistics, the number of prescriptions for ADHD for young people aged 10 to 19 has risen 26% since 2007. That amounts to almost 21 million yearly, which equates to nearly two million individuals. And most kids admit that it's exceptionally easy to fool a doctor into prescribing these medications for them.

But once on, students are finding it hard to kick the habit. A primary reason for this is that these drugs, when used as cognitive enhancers, actually work. "Once you break the seal on using pills, or any of that stuff, it's not scary anymore - especially when you're getting A's," noted a student interviewed for the piece.

There's lots more in the article, so be sure to check it out: "Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill."

Image via Shutterstock.com/Dirk Ercken.