Brain Candy: Can Ritalin turn you into an A student?

Thousands of students are using the drug illegally—but are they on to something?

To improve their chances of being accepted into university, students rely on a variety of tactics. Some do charity work. Some play on sports teams. Some turn to tutors or learning centres. Dale Jones tried a different approach: he took drugs.

Dale (not his real name) was in Grade 12 at the time, and he wanted to go to university. But the Calgary, Alta. native was struggling in school. He was bored and wasn’t applying himself. Looking for ways to raise his grades and ensure university admission, Dale discovered Ritalin—a prescription drug that stimulates the central nervous systems and is used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Many people believe that it can also be used by everyone else to improve concentration and focus. Dale decided to give it a try. Getting the drug was surprisingly easy: he says he researched the symptoms for ADD on the Internet, walked into a doctor’s office, regurgitated those symptoms—and within minutes walked away with a prescription.

Over the following months, whenever Dale’s high school workload swelled and he needed to concentrate for an extended period of time, he would cut a 10 mg pill in half and pop it in his mouth. Then he would sit down and study, with what he claims were remarkable results.

“I felt like I had binoculars on and nothing could distract me,” says Dale. “I went from basically doing nothing to performing at honours level.” By the end of Grade 12, Dale held a 90 per cent average in a number of classes and was on his way to the University of Victoria. He graduated in 2008 and now works in banking.

Dale’s story is apparently not unique. According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, thousands of high-school students are taking prescription drugs like Ritalin, Adderall and Dexedrine for non-medical reasons. The 2007 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey found that about 1 per cent of Ontario high-schoolers (nearly 10,000) reported using ADHD drugs for purposes that included staying awake and improving focus.

A study by the province of Nova Scotia and Dalhousie University found five per cent of high school students using methylphenidates (Ritalin) for non-medical purposes, and four per cent using amphetamines (Adderall). A Quebec government survey in 2002 pegged the number of high-schoolers experimenting with amphetamines at seven per cent. And Last October, a survey by the B.C. Centre for Social Responsibility found that about one-third of students at two B.C. universities were misusing prescription drugs, with the most popular being opiates and stimulants.

The practice may not even be all that new: a decade ago, McGill University’s director of mental health services told the Montreal Gazette that he believed that five to 10 per cent of the university’s students were using Ritalin to help them study.

Students in search of the drugs likely have little difficulty getting their hands on them. They can buy them over the Internet, ask a friend or classmate with a prescription to give them the pills, or get their own prescription like Dale did. There are a lot of pills out there: according to the health care consultancy IMS Canada, more than 1.3 million Ritalin prescriptions were handed out in Canada in 2008, a seven-fold increase since 1992.

Some experts say these self-medicating students may be on to something: these drugs may indeed have brain boosting powers. A group of ethicists, psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists recently published a commentary in Nature, one of the world’s leading science journals, where they argued that “cognitive enhancement, unlike enhancement for sports competition, could lead to substantive improvements in the world.” They also suggested that taking the drugs may be morally equivalent to other, more familiar enhancements such as drinking coffee.

Henry Greely, one of the commentary’s co-authors and a Stanford University law professor who specializes in neurolaw, is quick to point out that Ritalin and Adderall can be dangerous when not taken properly. “By no means are we recommending that they be put in vending machines and the drinking supply; they are powerful drugs with significant risks.” According to FDA-MedWatch, a voluntary reporting program of the FDA, there were 186 methylphenidate-Ritalin-related deaths in the U.S. between 1990 and 2000. Adderall, a stimulant that is growing in popularity, has been reported to sometimes cause vomiting, insomnia and severe mood changes.

But Greely says that we should be open to the possibility that these drugs, after careful study and when used under supervision, could in fact improve our minds. He believes that extensive research is required to examine the short and long term impacts of stimulants, improve their safety—and explore their potential.

“We are kind of in the ostrich mode of our response to this problem: let’s keep our heads in the sand and then we won’t have to work on it,” he says. “We’ve got to get our heads out of the sand.”

Dale did get his head out of the sand when he entered the University of Victoria, albeit in a different way: he says he stopped using stimulants, yet continued to work as hard or harder than he did in high school. But looking back on the experience, would he recommend that a student use a stimulant if they thought it could improve their grades? “Come on, absolutely,” he says. “I would even encourage people to take it in the workplace.”

Some people are. And the office could be brain boosting drugs’ next frontier. When Nature carried out an informal survey of 1,400 of its readers—most of whom are highly educated science, engineering and education professionals—one in five respondents said they had at some point taken drugs such Ritalin and Provogil for the non-medical purpose of improving concentration, focus and memory.

– photo courtesy of Steve Roman