What are study drugs? Considering 84 percent of college students feel overwhelmed, the higher education experience can be taxing for many.  From balancing classes, studying, extracurricular activities and maintaining a healthy social life, getting a college degree can be quite the juggle and can put a lot of pressure on students. If a student is also working part-time or raising a family, those are more layers of stress, leaving little time for academics.

With college students often pressed for time, that poses an important question: when do they have time to study? For some, the answer to this question is to take study drugs, which is harmful and damaging to many college students.

What are study drugs?

Study drugs, also called smart drugs, cognitive enhancers, neuro enhancers, and nootropics, are prescriptions drugs commonly prescribed for ADD, ADHD, and narcolepsy, but misused to help students focus on academic-related tasks. While these drugs are technically not illegal in the U.S. as they are commonly used to treat conditions related to cognitive functions, it is illegal to possess prescription drugs without a prescription for them. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act states that the only legal way to get a hold of prescription drugs is with a doctor’s prescription.

The scary reality of study drugs is that they are often less stigmatized at universities.  It’s a common misconception among students that study drugs are safe because they are prescribed by doctors. Thus, many students use study drugs without knowing how they can be highly dangerous and harmful due to abuse. With one in five college students abusing prescription stimulants, study drug abuse is an emerging issue that is being normalized at many campuses.

Students use study drugs typically for effects that impact cognitive function.  For example, they are drugs college students use to stay awake, remain focused or stay alert.  In fact, one study shows 85 percent of students who took prescription stimulants did so with the intent to study or improve their grades. When the pressure is on and time is limited to focus on academics, study drugs are a quick go-to for many students to instantly get the focus and motivation they need to perform well at school.

Do study drugs work? Some experts say study drugs do not have a positive impact on academics, but 28.6 percent of college students agree using study drugs helps improve their grades.  When students feel like their grades are on the line, study drugs can sound like a promising solution, but the truth is that they often do more harm than good.

Study Drugs and the Side Effects

At first glance, study drugs may seem great for students, especially those that are desperate to improve their academic performance. In most cases, the seemingly positive outcomes usually overshadow the detrimental effects that come with using study drugs, putting many students in danger due to their negligence. A few side effects include:


  • Mental crashing: Study drugs typically increase dopamine levels and when the drug wears off, users may experience a huge mental crash.

  • Mood swings: When using study drugs, there are changes in brain chemistry and hormones.  This can take a toll on a student by making their emotions extremely volatile, causing mood swings.

  • Addiction: Students can become addicted to study drugs, especially as they feel more pressure to uphold their high academic performance. They are also likely to consistently take study drugs to avoid mental crashes or sustain drug effects.

  • Insomnia: Since these are drugs college students use to stay awake, it can reduce the quality of their sleep. The wakefulness effects of the drugs can cause unwanted shifts in their sleep schedule and make it difficult to get shut-eye when they want to.

  • Anxiety: Given these study drugs play a huge role in cognitive function, users may feel increased levels of anxiety. For someone who is already dealing with anxiety, study drugs can also make their anxiety condition worse and negatively interact with any anti-anxiety medications they are taking.

  • Stomach issues: Study drugs not only impact cognitive function, but they can deteriorate the stomach.  As a result, one may experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation and digestive issues.

Heart palpitations and heart attack: Study drugs can increase the chance of heart problems such as heart palpitations.  Heart attack can occur in some cases, especially when study drugs are mixed with alcohol or other drugs.

The risks of using study drugs are not worth it due to the potential side effects above, but to many college students, they believe it’s the gateway to academic success and often overlook the repercussions.

Common Study Drugs

The most commonly known study drug is Adderall and is the drug that accounts for the highest ADHD medication abuse in college students. While Adderall is the poster child of study drugs, there are many others that are commonly abused. Below is a rundown of common study drugs:


  • Adderall is one of the most widely used prescription stimulants among college students.  Statistics of Adderall use in college students continue to increase, especially among young adults ages 18 to 25 (the primary age group among college students) who make up 60 percent of people using Adderall for nonmedical reasons. Users often say the positive effects of Adderall on college students include better scores for their midterms and finals, but Adderall side effects such as loss of dizziness, anxiety, and nervousness are not worth it.

  • Ritalin is a methylphenidate drug that is mainly prescribed to help with ADHD as it releases dopamine and norepinephrine, resulting in better focus and more energy. The drug was initially developed to treat low blood pressure and was formerly used to address depression, narcolepsy, lethargy, and senility.

  • Concerta is also a methylphenidate drug, but has a longer release time compared to Ritalin.  As a study drug, it is commonly used for long periods of studying.  In some cases, it is snorted to achieve similar effects of meth.

  • Focalin can be used in small doses to achieve the same effects as a higher dose of Ritalin.  Focalin is a fairly new drug that was developed in the early 2000s commonly misused to help students focus better. In some cases of abuse, the effects can mirror the feelings of cocaine.

  • Dexedrine is a dextroamphetamine, also known as Dextrostat, used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy.  It is often abused by students to gain instant focus and increase their productivity.  Since Dexedrine can alter the brain’s reward system, students may feel good when they use it and bad when they do not, resulting in higher chances of addiction.

When there’s a lot of pressure for college students to excel with flying colors, sometimes it leads to unethical ways to achieve that; study drugs are a clear example of that. While the pressure on college students will likely never go away, it’s important to educate college students that study drugs should not be used as a shortcut to achieve academic success. Getting a degree can unlock many opportunities in the long-run, which can explain why there is so much pressure for college students to do well. But if one’s mental health and also physical being is at risk, is it worth it?

Questions or concerns about study drugs?  Do you know someone in college with possible issues with study drugs themselves?  If so, reach out to Sunshine Behavioral Health today.

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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