A quick Internet search of “pills to boost your brain power” will return thousands of hits. Obviously there is a big market for quick fixes to the problems many of us face on a daily basis— losing focus, becoming distracted, not accomplishing as much as we want to, especially in this “24/7” world. For high school and college students, the pressure to perform academically makes the idea of a pill that can help with attention or studying even more attractive.
What does the research tell us? While prescription stimulants are prescribed for the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and have been shown to be effective for the management of this condition, there is little evidence that nonmedical use for otherwise healthy individuals can provide an extra boost of brain power. Research studies of college students show that nonmedical use is concentrated among those who have lower GPAs, skip class more often, are heavy drinkers and who use drugs like marijuana. Although studying is the most common reason why student use stimulants nonmedically, another commonly cited motive is to stay awake longer to drink more alcohol and “party.” In many cases, prescription stimulants are used nonmedically as a way to meet academic demands without compromising an active social lifestyle, which often includes drinking, illicit drug use and little time for studying. Yet, there is no evidence that this compensatory strategy is effective. Partying through college while taking prescription stimulants nonmedically to study and cram will be counterproductive in the long run.
As we are very well aware, simple messages of the potential risks of taking pills might not sway a student away from these temptations given their distorted view of the potential benefits. So we need to dispel the myth of the potential benefits. We also need to correct inflated misperceptions about how many students are using stimulants nonmedically. Roughly, less than one in 10 adolescents used a prescription stimulant nonmedically once or more in the last year. But studies show that students believe that almost three-quarters of students are using. Adjusting this perception is important to “de-normalize” the behavior.
Physicians and parents can play a critical role in reducing nonmedical use. Not only can they help correct misperceptions, but they can also discourage those with ADHD to share or sell their medication, an all- too-common practice. Reducing diversion will make these drugs less available for nonmedical use. Also, when signs of academic problems exist (either at the high school or college level), parents and educational professionals should encourage screening for substance use and adopting an individualized plan to address it.
Educational pressures, both academically and socially, are real. Unfortunately, brain boosters that come in pill form remain elusive. The surest path to good grades and a successful career is through hard work and constructive activities such as taking an extra class or devoting some time to extracurricular activities. But taking on too much isn’t a good idea either, especially in the first year of college when students are getting used to a new environment. Getting enough sleep, going to classes regularly, studying regularly rather than trying to cram, getting some exercise and eating well – these are truly the best ways to achieve in school. In short, the best “brain boosters” can’t be found in a bottle.
Amelia M. Arria, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Behavioral and Community Health
Director, Center on Young Adult Health and Development
University of Maryland School of Public Health
College Park, MD