Issue 30 / 6 August 2012

RESEARCH is needed to determine whether significant numbers of Australian students are trying to improve their academic performance by taking diverted prescription stimulants, according to academics from three Australian universities and a Canadian research institute.

Dr Jayne Lucke, principal research fellow at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Clinical Research, said there were anecdotal reports of students taking methylphenidate and dexamphetamine, to improve concentration and memory.

These reports suggested students were obtaining the drugs from family or friends who had been prescribed them for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In a letter to the Medical Journal of Australia, Dr Lucke and Professor Wayne Hall, also from the Centre for Clinical Research, said there were good reasons to be concerned about non-medical use of prescription stimulants, yet there was “surprisingly little empirical data on the extent of non-medical use of prescription stimulants in Australia”. (1)

They have teamed with the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of NSW, Deakin University in Victoria and the Clinical Research Institute of Montreal to apply for grant research funding from the Australian Research Council to explore the issue.

Dr Lucke told MJA InSight it was important to determine whether non-medical use of stimulants might partly explain the 87% increase in stimulant dispensing in Australia from 2002 to 2009.

Dr Sharlene Kaye, research fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of NSW, said the increase might reflect increased recognition of ADHD, but her recent research suggested diversion was an issue.

She found that 31% of 269 illicit drug users had used diverted prescription stimulants, while only 7% had been prescribed them.

“The implication is that these drugs are getting out to a lot more people than they’re being prescribed for”, she said. “It’s not only happening among university students, but among the illicit drug population as well.”

Dr Kaye said United States studies showed that 23%–84% of college students who had been prescribed stimulants had experienced people asking for them or offering to buy them.

Dr Lucke said there was a great deal of hype in the US about using medication to boost brain power, with research suggesting 7% of US college students had taken methylphenidate and dexamphetamine as study aids.

“Often you find it’s male students not getting great grades, who have higher levels of alcohol and other recreational drug use”, she said.

Dr Lucke said increased financial and academic pressure may be influencing students’ non-medical use of prescription stimulants, but recreational use also had to be considered.

Ms Jade Tyrrell, president of the Students Association of the University of Technology in Sydney, said she had heard of a couple of students taking the drugs but she wasn’t aware that it was a widespread issue.

“I’m sure it goes on with the higher pressure subjects. Some students pull out all stops to try and balance the financial and academic pressures they face”, she said.

“No-Doz [caffeine] is pretty standard in exam time for cram sessions towards the end of semester and energy drinks are standard for sure”, she said.

Ms Tyrrell said the high cost of living in Sydney placed a lot of pressure on students, particularly when they had to combine work and study.

Dr Lucke said despite the toxic side effects of stimulant misuse and dependence, clinicians seemed more concerned about non-medical use of opioids prescribed for chronic pain.

“Is that because we haven’t got the proper studies to show the extent of non-medical use of stimulants by students in Australia?” she said.

– Heather Wiseman

1. MJA 2012; 197: 145


Posted 6 August 2012

6 thoughts on “Are students popping pills to boost performance?

  1. Awakenotasleep says:

    Student leaders must not be taking stimulants if they don’t know of the scale of this issue! Stimulant misuse is rife throughout Australia, both prescription diversion-sourced & illicits. Prohibition, law enforcement & prosecution make no difference to the reality of demand. Professors lament the problem but its root cause is the immense pressure on people today to succeed or be left in the wake of others who do so. Tackle society’s ills or rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. That’s the real choice we face!

  2. bruni brewin says:

    Students put pressure on themselves – it is called ‘fear of failure’. As soon as we put pressure on ourselves (not only study), we are so focused on the thing we don’t want to happen that we often cause that very thing to happen. There is not one student who has crossed my path to get help, where the issue has been not with their memory and concentration – but with the inability to concentrate or remember because of the fear of failure. No amount of stimulants can assist to make that better (unless taking the stimulant becomes a placebo effect). Remove the fear of failure (sometimes also caused by parents), teach them how to study (pegging systems, speed reading, photo reading, when to study etc.) and that will take the pressure off.

  3. nickedname says:

    Students of the 60’s (my older medical colleagues)commonly used dexy’s to assist long hours of study, as might be expected in view of their availability at the time (so they tell me). US air force pilots still do so, if reasonable reports are to be believed. There may be realistic evidence of benefit if road driver studies are to be taken into account. Perhaps we need to reconsider the badness created by poorly considered rules, and allow judicious, careful, supervised use of beneficial medications (as we do for all other prescribed medications)

  4. JaneEthics says:

    I agree with the posts by B Brewin and Awakenotasleep. Also,I believe the “diagnosis” of ADHD as a “condition” is easily disputable. Many kids and adults so diagnosed actually fall into the gifted spectrum. In my opinion, ADHD is another case of the DSM IV dominant medical paradigm of “mental illness” pevailing. That is: the disease-prescription-drug “cure” model. The biopsychosocial model of health needs to prevail and some doctors need to reflect on their moral duty not to prescribe drugs of dependence like stimulants, when there are non harmful alternatives. “Do no harm”

  5. rose says:

    I attended medical school in the seventies, and saw no drugs except Marijuana cigarettes dilated with tobacco in a few students, who did not do very well. Perhaps the stress of HECS debt is the cause of the current problem. I ran or swam for 30 minutes each day to improve concentration, and passed every exam. Perhaps students need mentoring in alternative therapy including exercise and relaxation such as yoga

  6. Calochilus says:

    I hope that Dr Jayne Lucke is cognisant of the nature of the hysteria surrounding ADHD and stimulants.
    I recently had cause to look briefly at the USA figures. In regard to stimulants, the total rate of licit usage and illicit usage roughly could be accounted for by the estimated incidence rate of ADHD. I realise this is pretty rough and ready but when compared with the problems of illicit usage of prescribed opiates, stimulants run a long way behind.i
    I hope Dr Lucke might also look at whether the persons allegedly using illicit stimulants are using oportunistically or are using regularly and recreationally. It would be interesting also, to find if the users of illicit stimulants are exhibiting ADHD traits and even if they might be eligible for a diagnosis of ADHD and thus a legitimate prescription.
    A recent paper in PLoS One by Das et al (PLoS ONE 7(2): e31500. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031500) suggested that ADHD traits may be present in about 6% of the population. In the study group of about 2000 subjects, only 1 participant was being treated for ADHD using stimulants but nearly half of the cohort identified as having ADHD traits were being treated for depression (a common comorbid disorder)

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