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This is your brain on drugs: today's students have a drug problem, but it's not exactly what you might think.


CAN YOU IMAGINE ASKING STUDENTS TAKING THEIR SATs to pee in a cup? Or a high school valedictorian losing his place at an Ivy League school because his application essay was written with the aid of a performance-enhancing drug? Mention doping scandals and most of us think of Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds bulking up on steroids. Now it turns out some of America's best students are using "scholastic steroids" to pump up their test scores and protect their GPAs. Several recent surveys show a growing number of high school and college students in this country are taking prescription drugs like Ritalin, Adderall, and Provigil as study aids.

Ritalin and Adderall are methylphenidates, stimulants prescribed for attention deficit disorder, and Provigil is a treatment for narcolepsy, but in healthy persons these prescription drugs also improve wakefulness, concentration, memory, and a number of "executive" brain functions that help us identify and solve problems--just what the doctor ordered for a student cramming for a big final or writing a major paper.

THE USE OF RITALIN AND OTHER PRESCRIPTION STIMULANTS has skyrocketed since the early 90s. Developed for the treatment of ADHD, production of Ritalin in the United States shot up 500 percent between 1990 and 1995. By that year 2.6 million people were taking the drug, the vast majority of them 5- to 12-year-old children. In 2003 the number of children in this country being treated for ADHD with Ritalin or other methylphenidates had reached 4.4 million.

But, as it turns out, large numbers of the young people taking these stimulants and other prescriptions were not suffering from or diagnosed with ADHD or narcolepsy. Instead, healthy high school and college students who wanted the benefits of these "smart drugs" were getting them from their friends and doctors. In the United States physicians can prescribe medicines for "off-label" purposes for which they were not designed or tested. And with nearly 5 million prescriptions for Ritalin and other methylphenidates, most students can find someone with a pill to sell.

DEPENDING ON THE SURVEY, SOMEWHERE between 4 and 16 percent of U.S. college students admit to using stimulants or other prescription drugs to improve academic performance, with one study suggesting that the number could be as high as 25 percent on some campuses.

No doubt a large number of these young people will soon be rifling their parents' and grandparents' medicine cabinets, looking for one of the dozens of new drugs for Alzheimer's and stroke patients. Studies indicate that a number of FDA-approved Alzheimer's medications like Donepezil can also improve alertness, concentration, memory, and the higher functions of the brain.

At the same time researchers have discovered that the stroke drug Fasudil could enhance learning and memory for middle-aged patients facing the normal cognitive losses associated with aging. There is no adequate research for the safety or efficacy of these drugs when used by healthy adolescents for cognitive enhancement, but during exam week there could be lots of willing volunteers borrowing their elders' prescriptions.

NOT EVERYONE THINKS THIS TREND IS ALL that troubling, or that we should forbid the use of "smart drugs."

If they are proven to be safe and effective for use as performance enhancers, if they are equally accessible to rich and poor students, and if no one is coerced or pressured to take these medications, a number of leading physicians and psychiatrists suggest that competent and healthy adults should be allowed to use them without prescriptions or punishment.

We already let people use stimulants like caffeine, performance enhancers like beta blockers, and mood adjusters like anti-depressants. Why not let them use one of the 40-plus brain drugs currently in development to improve wakefulness, focus, memory, or problem-solving skills? Perhaps we should replace the soda and candy machines in most schools with Ritalin and Adderall dispensers.

These are interesting and perhaps valid arguments and should be addressed in any discussion of the growing illicit use of stimulants and other prescription drugs by legions of adolescent students. What we do not need in America is another "war on drugs"--though we are unlikely to ever wage such a war against the middle- and upper-class kids competing for a slot at Harvard, Stanford, or Johns Hopkins.

WHY HAS EDUCATION BECOME SO COMPETItive in America that thousands of our best and brightest feel pressured to pop prescription drugs in order to get or keep a 4.0? Why is it that you are 25 times as likely to run into a rich student as a poor student at the nation's top 146 colleges? Why has the educational system in this country become a winner-take-all competition, with millions of losers who never finish high school and with half of those who do start college quitting before they get their degrees?

There are good medical and ethical reasons to worry about a growing epidemic of prescription drug abuse among our teens. Adolescent brains are complex, fragile, and unfinished works of art, far more susceptible to abuse, addiction, and injury than their adult counterparts. A society that encourages its best and brightest (and most fragile) to ingest drugs in search of success has failed to teach its children well.

McCormick's quick takes ADMIT ONE

These films show what happens when there is a little too much pressure to succeed:

The Paper Chase (20th Century Fox, 1973)


Searching for Bobby Fisher (Paramount, 1993)


Thumbsucker (Sony Pictures, 2005)


By PATRICK McCORMICK, professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Title Annotation:culture in context
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2009
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