As expectations escalate, more and more college students are seeking ways to stay afloat under increasing academic pressure. Many turn to prescription stimulants as a way to manage this stress. Of the one in five students who reported misusing or abusing these “study drugs” in 2014, over half claimed they received higher grades, improved their work performance, or gained a competitive edge as a result.
While these drugs are commonly thought to cause cognitive enhancement, studies have shown that they do not improve learning or thinking abilities in those without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Perpetuating this misperception can prove dangerous, as the misuse of prescription stimulants can have serious physical, mental, and emotional consequences. We broke down four of the most popular study drugs and examined their trends over time in order to explore America’s shifting interest in stimulants.
Popular “Study Drugs”
There are two classes of prescription stimulant medications: amphetamines and methylphenidate. Both are central nervous–system stimulants intended to treat ADHD by increasing dopamine levels in the brain, which causes increased wakefulness, focus, and attention. Both are also addictive and have a high potential for abuse.
While amphetamines, like methylphenidate, increase the activity of dopamine by blocking its reuptake by nerve cell endings, they also act to increase the nerve cell endings’ release of the neurotransmitters to begin with, thus prolonging their action in a two-fold manner. This means amphetamine-based stimulants such as Adderall and Vyvanse, with their two pronged mechanisms of dopaminergic activity enhancement, generally last longer than methylphenidate-based stimulants such as Ritalin and Focalin.
Ritalin and Adderall – drugs that have been on the market for 60 years and 14 years, respectively – are two of the best-known prescription stimulants. Focalin and Vyvanse are relatively newer and more expensive. The longer a drug has been on the market, the more likely its pharmaceutical trademark has expired, and therefore has a generic version available; these generic forms are cheaper because they don’t require the costly clinical trials or marketing that new drugs need.
Many drugs reinforce a pattern of compulsive use by bolstering catecholamine neurotransmission in certain areas of the brain. The result is tenacious drug use behavior very difficult to reverse on one’s own. The study drugs are no exception. Don’t go the struggle alone – call 1-888-986-4028 to speak with a treatment support advisor about your recovery options today.
Percentage of College Students Who Used Prescription Amphetamines (2004–2014)
College students have reported using prescription amphetamines since the 1980s, long before the arrival of amphetamine-based stimulants such as Adderall and Vyvanse. However, there has been a rising trend since 2008 of students enrolled in four-year colleges or universities reporting use of prescription amphetamines.
Overall, the survey results are predictably intuitive: The highest percentage of students who reported having used prescription amphetamines were the students who said they’d used the drug at some point in their lifetime, followed in a downward trajectory by those who said they’d used it at least once in the past year, at least once in the past month, and, finally, daily in the past month. While the percentage who reported using the drug in their lifetime and in the past year rose considerably from 2008 to 2012, the students who had used it in the past month or daily remained consistent in this timeframe.
Search Prevalence for “Study Drugs,” By Year (2004–Present)
Overall, Google Trends search interest for the four popular prescription stimulants – Adderall, Focalin, Ritalin, and Vyvanse – grew exponentially from 2007 to 2012. Although search interest includes more than just college students, as well as those searching with legitimate medical conditions, it’s noteworthy that this increase in search trends mirrors the rise in reported college student amphetamine usage starting in 2008.
Adderall had the highest spike in search interest over this time period. The oldest drug, Ritalin, saw its search interest fall from 2004–2007 and then remain relatively steady. While Focalin followed this trend as well, it also had the lowest search interest over these past 12 years. Vyvanse, on the other hand, took off after its 2007 release date and outpaced both Ritalin and Focalin. Interestingly, both of the prescription amphetamines have higher search interest than the prescription methylphenidate drugs.
Search Prevalence for “Study Drugs,” By Month (2004–Present)
For the most part, each of these four prescription stimulants had their highest search interest between January and May. Interest overall peaked in April, fell sharply between June and July, and peaked a second time in October.
Again, while search interest encompasses everyone searching for these terms, not just college students, these months do coincide with mid- to end-semester periods in most colleges and universities. Final exams for the end of the school year take place between March and May, a time when overall search interest reaches its highest peak. Many college students are not enrolled in classes during June and July – the period of lowest search interest.
Students seeking the aid of study drugs to gain an academic edge are playing a dangerous game. Recent reports indicate that the numbers of individuals having used prescription stimulants at some point in their lifetime come close to 1/3 of the entire student body. It’s safe to say that many incidences of study drug abuse aren’t isolated. The rampant misuse of these drugs can backfire – academic performance can actually deteriorate, severe health risks are introduced and the specter of developing a serious drug dependency loom large. If the misuse of stimulants or other prescription medication has turned into a larger and problematic issue, substance abuse treatment may provide the help you need. Call 1-888-986-4028 for more information about potential recovery options for people in your situation.
Search Prevalence for Ritalin, By State (2004–Present)
Ritalin’s search interest is fairly uniform geographically, perhaps due to its longevity on the market. In terms of individual states, the drug has the most interest in the Northeast region as well as Michigan. When looking at individual cities, those with the highest search interest display more regional variation: Boston, in first place, gives a nod to third-place Massachusetts, while the states home to Chicago and Philadelphia don’t make the cut. Portland and Seattle are far from the high-interest Northeast, but they make the list of top cities regardless.
Search Prevalence for Adderall, By State (2004–Present)
Of all the prescription stimulants we looked at, Adderall has the highest search interest over time, but its geographical interest isn’t exactly uniform. Its search interest is mostly concentrated in the South, especially in Louisiana, with the exception of – once again – Michigan. City-wise, those searching the most for Adderall are more widely dispersed: Alexandria, a city outside the District of Columbia, has the highest interest, followed closely by Chicago (again), Austin, Boston (again), and Philadelphia (again). These three cities, as well as the state of Michigan, rank high for both Adderall and Ritalin.
Search Prevalence for Focalin, By State (2004–Present)
While Focalin has the lowest search interest overall, that interest is concentrated in the South and Southwest, although West Virginia also makes the rankings. Its top three cities with the most interest – New Orleans, Austin, and Houston – reflect these regions. Indianapolis and Kentucky are somewhat outliers. Even though Focalin shares no top states and cities with Ritalin, it has Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Austin in common with Adderall.
Search Prevalence for Vyvanse, By State (2004–Present)
Vyvanse’s search interest, like Adderall and Focalin, is highest in the South. Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi make the top five states for all three drugs, with Louisiana taking the No. 1 spot for both Adderall and Vyvanse. Its top cities reflect its top states, with Baton Rouge and New Orleans coming in first and second and Atlanta making the No. 4 spot.
Because search interest for these “study drugs” has both risen over time and peaked during college exam periods, and because reported college student use of amphetamines has risen similarly over this same timeframe, it’s not unreasonable to posit a correlation between rising search interest and rising student drug use. The rankings in search interest for certain cities and states may suggest higher student use in the associated colleges and universities, although one must be careful not to confuse correlation with causation.
Regardless, prescription stimulant abuse is on the rise, and its consequences can be devastating for students and non-students alike. A perceived study-boost can quickly evolve into a dangerous habit that continues long after the semester’s end. If you’re a student or parent of a student concerned about problematic drug use – prescription stimulant or otherwise – visit ProjectKnow.com. We invite you to peruse our extensive library of information on substance abuse and behavioral addiction, search our state treatment directory, or phone our recovery support hotline at to speak with someone about addiction treatment program options that would suit your needs or those of a loved one.
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