Do 'Smart Drugs' Drugs Really Work?

The stomach-churning stress of finals can cause students who feel intense pressure to earn good grades to turn to "smart drugs" for that additional academic boost. But these expensive drugs may not be living up to the hype.

Medicines like Ritalin, Concerta, and Adderall change the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, so they affect how the brain controls impulses and attention. They are commonly prescribed to treat attention deficit disorder.

Perhaps the biggest misconception that students have about these medicines is that they will magically deliver better grades. In reality, the drugs are simply stimulants that help people to stay attentive and focused on whatever they are doing.

"They just make you more alert and wakeful," said Hank Greely, director of Stanford University's Center for Biomedical Ethics. "They won't make up for you not doing the reading for ten weeks."

Therefore, people taking them without a prescription could just as easily down a double shot of espresso to get the same results without the dangerous side effects, Greely said.

We know that college students are using these stimulant medications without a prescription, thinking they are safe and will give them a competitive edge," said Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

But it's dangerous to take these drugs without a prescription, Volkow said. For example, while Adderall is effective in increasing attention, it also raises blood pressure and heart rate and can lead to a slew of serious heart and blood pressure problems. These drugs can be addicting, and how they affect the brain in the long term remains unknown, she said.

The negative side effects can be even more dangerous for people already taking other prescription drugs, Volkow said. And stimulants are dangerous when mixed with alcohol or over-the-counter drugs like cold medicine, according to NIDA.

Students keep adding to this medicine cabinet. A newer drug that's been showing up on campuses is Provigil, which was approved by the FDA to treat sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, Greely said. The off-label use of Provigil as a sleep suppressant allows overburdened college students to pull all-nighters more easily.

Some students have also recently been experimenting with combinations of immediate-release Adderall, which is effective for three hours, and extended-release Adderall, which can last for seven hours, according to news reports. This mixture is designed to help them stay continuously alert during long, tedious days crammed with classes, term papers and finals.

"The health risks are small but not trivial, so these drugs should be approached with caution, even by people diagnosed with ADD and ADHD," Greely said.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.