By: James Yates
Students and young adults around the nation’s universities and work places have increasingly turned to the amphetamine-based prescription drug Adderall and similar drugs in order to augment their memory, focus, and energy levels. With increasing pressures for consistent achievement and success, the allure to procure these drugs illegally has led many productive and contributing members of society to break the law. Using these substances without a prescription or for off-label uses is a criminal offense that many people are willing to commit, despite the legal, financial, and health risks.
Ambitious entrepreneurs have noticed the growing demand and accompanying legal ramifications for stepping outside of the law and are now attempting to provide a solution. Regardless of the legality or claims of being healthier alternatives, these new study drugs’ effectiveness and safety have not been established through experimentation with large enough cross-sections of randomized populations and most certainly not through longitudinal studies. As an unnamed professor at a prestigious university, I therefore understand the precaution being taken by the administration’s conversation concerning the ban of these products. Until conclusive research-based evidence arises, we have only the biased self-reports of eager students concerning short-term health factors.
“Each one of our professors seems to think theirs is the only class we are taking. The combined workload is ridiculous. I sleep more nights in the study room than in my own bed at home,” says Brandon, a junior classman studying at the Engineering school.
While one can’t argue that the complaints are compelling, they aren’t qualified justifications for the possible further complications students can meet due to these legal smart drug alternatives. Christine, a senior in Marketing, comments, “It’s legal, there’s no amphetamine in it, and it’s cheaper than a cup of coffee. Why wouldn’t I use it? It helps me focus and be creative. Banning Addium seems senseless for the most part.”
Addium is one of several brands of cognition enhancers showing up on campus recently. After visiting the websites and being exposed to the powerful marketing, it’s no wonder that students are turning to these options over seemingly more risky propositions. Addium, for instance, boasts that it is not only safer than prescription medications like Adderall, Vyvanse, and Ritalin, but it is also less dangerous than energy drinks and high-caffeine coffee drinks. Pointing out the negatives of other alternatives is only the beginning. You are then told that you will be “zoomed in” and your brain will be “awakened.” These catchy yet meaningless phrases are enticing for an overburdened young adult under subjectively crippling academic pressure.
James, a doctoral candidate in Mathematics, summed up the sentiments of all of the students interviewed, when he said, “We are all up for the challenge of grad school. But after 8 years of being slammed with cutting edge concepts and expectations, its stops being fun. It becomes a burden. Your mental fog thickens, motivation decreases, distractions are everywhere, and all you want to do is sleep. Addium cures all of this. I’m the confident, focused, quick thinker again. I wish this had been around when I was a freshman.” Exciting the nervous system and using neurochemical protagonists and precursors while inhibiting others can come at a cost as the body and brain seeks the homeostasis of your biological baseline.
The complexity of studying the immediate and long-term effects of a compound takes time. Confirming results and cross-referencing metadata can take decades. In addition, many of the “safe and effective” dosages suggested to customers were established in laboratory mice and extrapolated to match human proportions. Many of these neuro-enhancers are what are being called “stacks,” meaning that they are a combination of many compounds being mixed together. Often you aren’t even able to determine what’s in them due to the ingredients being hidden from competitors behind the protective label of being a “proprietary blend.” In my colleagues and my own research, we have not been able to find any information related to LD-50’s (lethal doses that end the life of 50% of the subjects) of these mixtures. It is due to the lack of information, not any current damage being done, that these smart drugs are meeting resistance among the careful administration.
“There’s little evidence that GABA can even cross the blood-brain barrier,” reports the Neuropsychology adjunct professor during discussion of the individual components comprising Addium. “Using Vinpocetine and Huperzine will definitely increase glucose and acetylcholine metabolization. That short term benefit equally implies a later shortage of the same constituents.” Serious physiological addiction will not be aroused but students may find themselves becoming psychologically dependent upon these substances, especially those subject to chasing a recreation of the initial experience.
The main concern arises with what is termed “poly-substance abuse.” This occurs when many substances are ingested at once, often resulting in unforeseen synergistic effects. Dealing with the unexpected can be dangerous, especially when medical professionals have no prior experience or information to guide their helping hands. The brain is an amazingly sophisticated organ that depends upon a delicate balance of dozens of neurotransmitters, all regulating mood, motor-functions, psychological outlook, hormonal output, metabolism, and more. The implications of consuming a non-studied, non-documented compound are sensitive. The consumer will shoulder the consequences, well-intentioned or not.
Allow me to reiterate and summarize concisely. Although being marketed as “safe alternatives,” these smart drugs are nothing more than simply alternatives. Whether they are safe or not has yet to be seen. The situation is critical only due to the possibility of danger, not the fact. The college experience is meant to educate students not only in knowledge but also in the worldly and societal demand of balance. One must face challenges, make choices, and prioritize. Pressure is a fact of life. Sidestepping this reality through the use of cognitive enhancers will not prepare you for the inevitable. For these reasons our administration is currently suggesting students forego the consumption of non-established smart drugs. Proceed with caution.