You Passed the Exam; Can You Pass a Drug Test?

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College students are undeniably under a great deal of stress. They are pushed to perform and struggle to stack up those shiny A's. Unfortunately, many turn to chemistry for an edge.

The current favorite is Adderall, a mixture of amphetamines that is used primarily to treat attention deficit disorders. The problem is an old one in academia though. Coffee has long been the staple, with college students using it to fuel all-night study sessions and then again the next morning to wake themselves up for the exam.

Another drug used is propranolol (Inderal), a blood pressure lowering agent that helps reduce test anxiety for those prone to panic during an exam. While not a stimulant like Adderall, propranolol increases blood flow to the brain, reduces rapid heartbeat, and promotes a physical calm that has been shown to increase test scores a small amount. It is unknown how much of the effect is due to the placebo effect. I think I will better and this gives me confidence and I actually do perform better.

Does it work?

Adderall is speed. So, yes, it keeps students awake for cram sessions. Does it increase performance? Maybe. Remember, the purpose of staying up all night to study isn’t to stay up all night; the purpose is to learn the material well enough to pass a test.

From what we know about learning and memory, this is a poor strategy. In a very real sense, learning functions like building muscle. It is a slow, cumulative process. Neuron growth, which takes time, is a real part of the process. In fact, a cycle of rest between study sessions is considered one of the fastest ways to build new brain connections.
But if Adderall isn’t helping establish long-term learning, why would students take it?

Belief matters

It is unlikely that students are doing controlled scientific experiments to determine the precise effects of Adderall on their performance. If someone is worried they will fail or do poorly on an exam, and they believe the drug will help, they may take it. It isn’t about what is really going on, but what someone believes.

But it is even worse. Anyone who has taken amphetamines for pleasure will talk about how it inflates ego and gives a feeling of ‘being able to do anything’. So the drug itself tells the user they are doing better. And students believe it.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found in surveys that about 6.4% of college students use Adderall as an aid in studying. This is twice the rate in the general population of non-medically authorized use.

A 60-Minutes report from April 2010 found as many as 60% of students at one university were taking stimulants before final exams. (Full report here.)

The problem is so well known that the Onion published this headline, “Adderall Receives Honorary Degree from Harvard.”

There’s something wrong

If it really takes chemical supplementation to graduate from college, or even if students believe it does, there is something rotten in academia. Do we really want a generation of graduates who think that taking a substance to perform better is a rational choice? And what follows after graduation? Another substance to do better at work? Something else to relax after a hard week? Maybe another chemical to aid creativity?

The real danger is the attitude toward illegal drug use that comes from taking drugs without apparent consequences. The truth is that everyone thinks they are just ‘using’ drugs… until they find out the drugs are using them.

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