A study drug, or smart drug, is slang for any drug that helps you focus and perform for school or other academic activities. A study drug is intended to make focusing for long periods easier and more enjoyable and make information easier to remember. Most effective study drugs are stimulants, though other classes of drugs also fall within this group.
Why are drugs like this so popular? One answer might be that the pressure to perform in work and school has been increasing over the years. A larger and larger proportion of jobs are based around knowledge and focus and less about labor or physical activity. Focusing for long periods is difficult, and taking a drug to make this easier is desirable for some.
Nootropics are drugs that offer cognitive benefits. While companies that market nootropics strive to sound legitimate, they are not endorsed or backed by the medical community.
The term “nootropic” is nothing but a marketing strategy. Nootropic companies drape their marketing in scientific terminology that appears to be in line with rigorous medical studies, but the drugs are simply supplements with pseudomedical language.
Other pleasing sounding nicknames are: “brain enhancing drugs” or “brain boosters.”
Whether companies exaggerate their claims or not, the myth of smart drugs has found solid ground in our culture. Nootropics have become popular study drug options and are readily available for purchase over the internet. However, they are mostly untested synthetic drugs with unknown long-term effects.
Nootropics may refer to prescription stimulants, supplements, herbs or non-prescription drugs. Examples of nootropics include:
- Bacopa monnieri
- Eugeroics: armodafinil, modafinil
- Ginko biloba
- Racetams: aniracetam, oxiracetam, piracetam, phenylpiracetam
- Salvia officinalis
Prescription stimulants make a person feel more energetic and reduce fatigue. When someone takes a prescription stimulant, or “upper,” the brain releases neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. Neurotransmitters are chemical signals that brain cells use to talk with each other. Increasing dopamine and norepinephrine can increase a person’s focus and energy, and doing so corrects attention deficits in people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
For ADHD in teens, stimulants are a key treatment that improves their productivity, focus and alertness. In combination with behavioral therapy, stimulants help kids with ADHD keep up with their peers in the classroom.
People without ADHD may use stimulants as a method to give themselves a competitive advantage and improve their ability to study. For those without ADHD, stimulants cause euphoria, jitteriness and other unwanted side effects. Stimulants are also incredibly addictive.
Common prescription stimulants include:
- Amphetamine salts (Adderall IR or Adderall XR)
- Dextraamphetamine (Dexedrine)
- Lisdexamfetamine (Adderall)
- Methylphenidate (Ritalin or Concerta)
Misperceptions of Stimulant Use
Stimulants and other “brain booster drugs” may give a small study advantage at first, but the initial effects quickly wear off as tolerance develops.
Medical studies show that stimulants do not improve cognitive performance but, rather, improve drive, energy and mood.
The difference here is subtle but important. Drugs that help you study do not make you smarter; they just make you more willing to study for longer periods. However, studying for a long time with poor study skills will not improve academic performance, — it only makes one think they are doing better.
Study Drug Abuse Facts and Statistics
Some important study drug statistics and stimulant addiction statistics include:
- ADHD symptoms usually start when a person is around seven years old, so many teenagers with a stimulant prescription have been using the drug for years.
- About 6% of American adults used prescription stimulants in 2017.
- In 2017, about 5 million American adults (2%) misused a prescription stimulant.
- Prescription stimulant abuse is higher among people with major depression, suicidal thoughts and substance use problems
- Nootropic stimulants and the nootropics market will reach $6 billion by 2024, according to market research.
The American medical community is beginning to recognize the dangers of overprescribing stimulant medications. At an individual level, educating yourself and your children is the best defense against harm from prescription stimulants.
The Dangers of Study Aid Drugs
Even though stimulants are often prescribed, this does not ensure that they are safe. Abusing stimulants carries health and addiction risks, as well as legal trouble.
Stimulants are almost always controlled medications, and taking someone else’s prescription or giving away or selling your prescribed stimulants is a federal crime.
Stimulants can cause the following negative side effects:
- Faster breathing
- Increased blood pressure and heart rate
- Increased blood sugar
- Mood changes like anger
- Muscle pains and weakness
- Psychosis (intrusive thoughts)
People can experience side effects even when using stimulants exactly as prescribed by their doctor. Never take prescription medication without a prescription, and do not give away your prescription to others. If you feel have too many pills in your prescription, tell your doctor so they can lower the amount you receive.
Nootropics pills are usually obtained through the internet without a prescription. We do not have a good understanding of the dangers of nootropics because there is very little medical literature on the topic.
Regardless, it is best to avoid nootropics until we know more.
Teen drug abuse can happen with both prescription and non-prescription drugs. Adderall abuse may be more dangerous than most people think.
While some stimulants seem less dangerous than drugs like cocaine and fentanyl, keep in mind that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies all three of these drugs as schedule II drugs. Schedule II drugs have a known medical benefit, but a high potential for abuse as well. They can create psychological or physical dependence that feeds an underlying addiction.
Stimulant medications are habit-forming, and they increase dopamine and reinforce feelings of motivation and reward. The more teens use stimulants, the higher the risk they will have of developing an addiction.
The effects of stimulants on the body can be lasting. It may take several years for health effects to appear, but they can be serious. Nootropics affect the brain in very different ways, depending on the drug. Some, like caffeine and nicotine, have known negative effects. Others, like piracetam, have almost no research and could have almost any long term consequence.
Examples of effects of using stimulants and negative effects of nootropics include:
- Heart problems
- Problems with blood pressure
- Suppressed appetite
- Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
- Unintentional weight loss
Many study aid drugs are prescription stimulants. Those caught with prescription stimulants without a prescription may face criminal charges for possession. Those caught selling stimulants, or possessing the drugs with intent to sell, may face felony charges.
Even with a prescription, it is a federal crime to redistribute your prescription medication. Legal trouble can interfere with a student’s future. They may not be able to pursue a certain career path, like law enforcement or military service, due to their criminal record, and they can lose scholarships or admissions offers to colleges.
Selling nootropics may or may not be legal, depending on the drug. Whether or not it is legal to sell a nootropic depends on if it is a controlled substance.
Stimulant Abuse and the Pressure to Perform
Academic pressures on teens can leave them feeling pulled between fitting in and standing out. Small academic mistakes or struggles can have big consequences, making teens feel that they must be top performers earlier than ever.
College tuition and other costs are skyrocketing, so many parents must subsidize their children’s education with scholarships or loans. With loans or scholarships that are based on academic performance, there is a heavy burden placed on children and teens, often before they are ready.
Student pressure to perform is often three-pronged:
- Do well in high school to get into your dream college
- Compete for highly-coveted scholarships and grants that rarely come close to covering all of your mounting higher education expenses
- Perform well in college to get a high-paying job to pay off student loan debt
Drugs to help focus may seem appealing but they can be counterproductive and destructive. It’s important to make sure that there is not an unreasonable amount of pressure on students and it’s always better to encourage healthy sleep and nutrition rather than take short cuts.
How to Prevent Study Drug Abuse
If your child has ADHD and a prescription for stimulants, the following steps can help to prevent drug abuse:
- Teach them the facts about their prescription drugs: it helps them in school but it will not help others. Teach them how to turn down a friend, classmate or bully who asks them from some of their pills.
- Teach them that giving away or selling their prescription is illegal, regardless if they are taking their prescription correctly.
- Legal ramifications of selling or distributing their drugs include fines, jail time and a permanent blemish on their legal record that future employers and colleges will see.
- Giving away your prescription medication makes it harder to get it for yourself. They may have to take drug tests and visit their doctor more often to ensure they do not give it away or abuse it.
- Explain how dangerous their prescription can be for a friend. Their peers can get really sick — even die, in certain cases — from taking the drug without a prescription and a doctor’s supervision. Stimulants are also very addictive.
If your child does not have ADHD or a prescription for stimulants, that does not mean that they are not at risk for abusing stimulants. Taking the following steps can help to prevent study aid drugs in your child:
- Include information about stimulants and prescription drug abuse in your drug talks. During the conversation, make it clear the rumors that stimulants will help them in school are false. Stimulants are dangerous and can cause many health problems in the present and down the road.
- Discuss other ways to succeed in school like attending class, taking thorough notes, studying for tests and exams, and asking for help when they need it. Assess whether your child is overwhelmed with too many responsibilities. Encourage them to take a break from clubs or sports, or scale back their part-time job.
- Explain the legal consequences of getting caught with stimulants without a prescription. They can experience fines, trips to court and jail time, or lose scholarships, college admission offers and job offers, making the extra study time pointless.
As a parent, be ready to involve the school or healthcare professionals if necessary. We want to do all we can to help our kids but we should also be aware of our own limitations.
Schools and the medical system have resources that can help teach and curb addiction. Be ready to explore and ask for these resources.
Does Your Child Need Help?
If you notice signs that your child is misusing study drugs or another substance, seek input from a professional. Many parents end up waiting until the problem grows much worse, making treatment more difficult.
The Recovery Village offers guidance to parents and teens concerned about study drug abuse. There are no obligations or costs associated with calling — just compassionate, judgment-free help. We can guide you in assessing the situation, seeking local counseling or finding treatment for your teen.
Drug Enforcement Administration. “Pharmacist’s Manual an Informational Outline of the Controlled Substances Act.” 2010. Accessed June 24, 2019.
Ilieva, Irena P., and Martha J. Farah. “Enhancement Stimulants: Perceived Motivational and Cognitive Advantages.” 2013, . Accessed June 24, 2019.
National Institute of Health. “Five Million American Adults Misusing Prescription Stimulants.” 2018. Accessed June 24, 2019.
National Institute of Health. “Prescription Stimulants.” 2018. Accessed June 24, 2019.
National Institute of Health. “Stimulant ADHD Medications: Methylphenidate and Amphetamines.” 2014,. Accessed June 24, 2019.
Zion Market Research. “Global Nootropics Market Will Reach USD 5,959 Million by 2024: Zion Market Research.” 2019. Accessed June 24, 2019.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.