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Use of drugs to enhance academic performance

  1. Dec 15, 2009 #1


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    Dear twofish-quant,

    I found this thread interesting especially since I have a daughter in college, and have friend's whose kids are in the same situation.

    During a discussion with one of them about achievement, grades, stress, time management, cramming, all nighters, etc... I asked him what his kids do to help them focus. I got a surprising answer, his kids, son and daughter both use strattera, a norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomoxetine" [Broken]). It works/builds up in their system over time. They start with a smaller dose, gradually increasing to obtain full effect, usually over a month period or so. Then, after the school year is over, they wean themselves off it as recommended to avoid unwanted side-effects. He confided that both his son and daughter use it to help them focus and obtain better grades, but only during challenging semesters (as needed) at college. I know times have changed since you were in college, because in those days drugs with this level of sophistication did not exist.

    So, question is: How rampant at competitive colleges like MIT is this and other prescription drugs used to help focus/study/prepare for tests ?


    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 15, 2009 #2
    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    The bigger question is: how can I get some?
  4. Dec 15, 2009 #3
    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    I don't know what the situation is like today. In my day circa late-1980's, people didn't use anything stronger than lots of coffee and Jolt Cola, but even those didn't work very well for very long. When you need to sleep, you need to sleep.

    Also, one very good thing about Harvard and MIT, is that you had some pretty strong pressure from professors and upperclassmen *NOT* to study. The problem with students at MIT, is that sometimes you need someone in a position of authority to tell you that you've been working too hard, you need to get some sleep, and that everything will be fine in the end.

    It didn't happen when I was at MIT in the late-1980's although I can't say anything about today. One of the things that I liked about MIT, was that it wasn't that internally competitive. Everyone made it clear that if did a reasonable amount of work, you'd pass the class, and one thing that did was it meant that people tended to help each other a lot.

    I do think that there is something seriously dysfunctional about the way that higher education has been structured.
  5. Dec 15, 2009 #4
    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    The even bigger question is how have we gotten ourselves in a situation were people think they need it. Once you start tinkering with neurochemistry, it's tinkering with dynamite.

    And it doesn't help. If you get to the point where everyone feels compelled to use prescription drugs to get an "extra edge" then you'll end up in an arms race in which no one ended up ahead, and it's not going to stop until something really, really had happens.
  6. Dec 15, 2009 #5
    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    That is not really true unless everyone's ultimate goal is a good relative rank, not knowledge, accomplishments or fun. If we really had a 100% safe drug without side-effects, available to everyone that would allow us to focus better then it would be beneficial for all, as society as a whole could accomplish more without any sacrifice (or get more free time if that was what we wanted).

    I know that I use caffeine (through soft drinks) to help my studying and if I could find an as inexpensive, legal and safe alternative I would use it and I don't see a problem with everyone else doing as well. I have heard second-hand accounts of ADD medicine like adderall and ritalin being used at other colleges, but at least at my (non-competitive) college it doesn't seem to be a major issue (or perhaps people just don't discuss it openly).
  7. Dec 15, 2009 #6


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    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    To clarify, I have known this guy and his family (now college age) for over 30 years, even before his kids were born, I assure you they are as "normal" a family as you will ever find. Normal problems like everyone else has, sure... My friend was making a comment that in his opinion that taking straterra made a difference in their grades by something like the difference between a B and a B+.

    I can't substantiate that because it is a single isolated case. A scientific study would have to be done to prove or disprove it. His son is now a graduate, has a job and doing fine. His daughter has less than two years to go. His kids were always active in sports and got good grades when they applied themselves. They were not the kind of kids who needed to be #1 in their class to be happy with themselves. I hope I have clarified this instance at least. I can't speak for anyone else...

  8. Dec 15, 2009 #7
  9. Dec 15, 2009 #8
    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    It's a good thing college kids aren't known for their use of mind-altering substances already (excluding alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy, Vicodin, Xanax, Valium, and the various other amphetimanes and barbituates floating around). Plus, who are you to tell me, or anyone over whom you don't have legal custody, whether/how we are allowed to alter our neurochemistry?
    Just because you call something an "arms race" doesn't mean that it's a bad thing. By that reasoning (if I may set up a straw man for comedy's sake), nobody should study for tests because if some people study then others will feel compelled to study to get an "extra edge". Returning to seriousness, though, your post reeks of luddism.

    And as for the "something really, really bad", I'll assume you mean that some people are going to overdose and possibly die. Frankly, why should I care? The vast majority of college students are legally adults who should be able to decide for themselves whether or not they want to take that risk. I don't like the idea of dying from alcohol poisoning, so I don't binge drink (or, indeed, drink at all).

    The only reason there is even a discussion about it is because it is something new and therefore it must be scary and bad.
  10. Dec 15, 2009 #9
    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    I think that is a large part of it, but once you get beyond the initial paranoia there are still two scary things:
    a) These are prescription drugs. Thus, at least legally, they are not on the level of alcohol, but rather the same as cocaine. You can get jail time in many countries for simple possession of them.
    b) Some of these substance can have serious adverse effects and therefore check-ups at doctors should be encouraged or at least information on how to detect adverse efffects, but as long as they remain illegal to obtain people won't get checked for adverse reactions. Some reactions such as liver issues may not be detected until the damage is very serious.

    Both issues would almost disappear if we legalized it, but some of these substances can still be dangerous (however if this was reason enough to make them illegal I guess alcohol should be made illegal too). Personally I'm all for legalizing them when proven safe, some of this stuff is really effective. Keeping them illegal pose the same threats that making alcohol illegal does, except cognitive enhancement is much better for society.
  11. Dec 15, 2009 #10


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    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    For people who have ADHD these kinds of drugs can clearly make life much better. But I think that advising kids to use this stuff when they don't medically need it is basically a vote of no-confidence.

    I personally think that many college aged folks these days could improve their concentration by eliminating their so-called "multi-tasking." You know, watching TV, texting, face-booking, reading physicforums :smile:, and somehow studying at the same time. I heard an interesting NPR show where a couple of professors were discussing a study that showed such "multi-taskers" were actually worse-off than folks that didn't. It was very intersting, as their reason for performing the study was that they were impressed at how these students seemed to do so many things at once. What they found, is that they merely did a bunch of things poorly.

    Don't get me wrong, texting, email, etc. are all great and technology is the future, but to do deep thinking we need uninterrupted blocks of time. Our brains really only do one thing at a time, so when something requires a multi-step, complex thought process, constant interruptions will make it virtually impossible to get to the conclusion. When I really need to figure out something complex for work I close my email client and do not answer my phone. If I cannot get the block of time I need I will hide in the Library at work and not tell folks where I am. My efficiency is certainly the highest during such times.

    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  12. Dec 15, 2009 #11
    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    A lot of which have caused very, very serious problems. I think that part of the problem is that most people go to college at far too young an age.

    If you want to get drunk or high, and you are doing it to have fun, that's pretty much your business, and I really don't care that much what you do. If you are taking medication because you feel that you have to do it in order to get a B+ rather than a B-, then that's something very different. There's something seriously wrong with the college environment if people feel that the are compelled to take medication for non-recreational reasons.

    If education stops becoming fun, and people are too focused on the test and not learning anything, yes, that's a really big problem. Personally, I think that universities have too many tests.

    Also in the case of MIT, the environment of the place tries to keep you from studying too hard.

    If you don't want to, then don't. Just don't get in the way of those of us that do. Presumably, someone pays a college money to get an education. If they end up leaving the campus in a body bag, then something really bad did happen. Also, if you are a college administrator you should care, because you will be hit with a wrongful death lawsuit have have to pay out several tens of millions of dollars in legal settlements which happened to MIT.

    It's new therefore we really don't know what the risks are, and so it's a bad idea to create an environment which forces people to take these sorts of risks. Again, if you want to take new drugs for the fun of it, that's your business. If you feel that you need to take drugs because somehow the college is sending the message that you will get in trouble if you don't, then it really is the business of the college, if for no other reason than they'll get hit with a lawsuit if something bad happens to you.
  13. Dec 15, 2009 #12
    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    One other thing is that college is a difficult time, and pretty much everyone that goes to MIT will at some point in their undergraduate years "flip out" in some way or another.
  14. Dec 15, 2009 #13
    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    I think a lot of older than college aged folks could improve their concentration by eliminating multi-tasking, and I try to avoid it whenever possible.

    One thing that I think is a pretty bad thing is that I get the sense that most college students are seriously overworked. Getting on the treadmill is fine if you want to be on it, but there needs to be this big red button that stops the treadmill and allows students to get off.

    One problem is that curriculum tend to be the battleground for departmental turf-wars and so there is political pressure to stuff the curriculum with required courses from your department.
  15. Dec 15, 2009 #14


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    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    The situation seemed the same in the late 1990s. But I think people stayed up to play Doom, not homework!
  16. Dec 15, 2009 #15
    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    If you're talking about the Richard Guy case, that has nothing to do with what we're talking about here. He was doing Nitrous Oxide repeatedly in dorms and had already gone to the health center for help before he died. Of course that's a wrongful death suit; they knew he was doing it and that he was doing it in the dorms. Second, I never said anything about tests. It would be silly (in my opinion) to do Adderall just to help cram for a single test, but I would love to take it regularly for the added alertness and increased memory to help with overall learning.

    I guess I see your point about the college implicitly encouraging its use, but I think personal responsibility has to come into play at some point. I can also agree with you saying that something is wrong with the whole environment if people feel pressured into trying these types of things to go from a B- to a B+, since at that point learning is secondary to getting the "prize" of a good grade by any means necessary.

    Realistically, college administrators would have to be stupid to think that us kids aren't going to try something that gives even the slightest of advantages with a few mildly annoying side effects. I just don't buy into everything you say about the environment making people feel like they have to do things. Clearly it's rewarded, but it's by no means mandatory (at least from my perspective).

    And I should add that I'm not as callous as I probably came off, but I was just making the point that someone else overdosing would not dissuade me from trying it cautiously. Furthermore, everything you said about the school risking a lawsuit wouldn't dissuade me personally from using it either. I'm just trying to give my perspective on it as a current student in the age group that tends to use these drugs most pervasively.
  17. Dec 15, 2009 #16
    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    But it's hard to argue for personal responsibility if the students don't have any real control over the testing and the classroom environment. Also, if you are going to mess up your life in a way that is going to cause a college to face major lawsuits and bad publicity, I don't think it's unreasonable for them to ask you to do it elsewhere.

    Why is getting a "slight advantage" so important? One thing that college is *supposed* to do is to teach people to question their environment. How did we end up with a world in which the difference between a B+ and a B- is so important, and do we really want to live in that kind or world?

    One thing that you have to realize is that one of the motivations behind college is so that the military/corporate/industrial complex can turn you into a cog to allow the power elite to make huge profits and when you are used up, you get thrown away. Grades are one way that power structure controls you, and makes you do what they want them to.

    Of course it wouldn't. You aren't the person that's getting sued.

    And if you are having fun doing it, then it's outside the bounds of this discussion.
  18. Dec 15, 2009 #17


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    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    What if vitamin C were found to make the difference between a B and B+, would you be opposed too?
  19. Dec 15, 2009 #18


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    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    My personal view: intelligence is over-rated, and stupidity is a priceless asset, but not everyone can afford to be idealistic and a B and a B+ sometimes makes a practical difference.

    However, everything we do is messing with neurochemistry, including eating our fruits and vegetables, so messing with neurochemistry per se is nothing new, except some means are better tested than others.
  20. Dec 15, 2009 #19
    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    We're not talking about whether or not a college encourages students to use these drugs, obviously they have to come out publicly against it until it becomes acceptable and they don't risk lawsuits anymore. We're talking about whether or not individuals should use them.
    I agree with you about mindlessly chasing grades rather than trying to actually learn the material. As I said before, it would be silly to use these drugs just to get through a test for which you hadn't truly learned the material on your own. Using them regularly to make really learning the material easier, on the other hand, seems totally acceptable.

    More power to you for that second paragraph, and I agree wholeheartedly. I'm not one to chase grades at the expense of learning the material for my own satisfaction, but I still insist that I would use Adderall/etc. regularly if it would help me learn and remember course material better.
    Again, my point in saying what I originally said was to talk about it from a student's perspective since the school's position pretty much has to be whatever will avoid the most lawsuits.
  21. Dec 16, 2009 #20
    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    I'm not sure what I'm for or against here.

    If it turned out that drinking mineral water or wearing tall hats could boost one's grades, then we'd have a problem, because in a situation where someone feels that they are under pressure to perform, they'll drink increasingly large amounts of mineral water and wearing taller and taller hats until something bad happens.

    In the case of drinking mineral water or drinking coffee, you will run into the situation that you'll get sick before you end up in the hospital. If you drink eight cups of coffee to stay awake for a test, chances are that you will get into a totally bad mental state, and then learn never to do it again. If it works for you, then chances are that you'll try drinking sixteen. Eventually you'll hit the wall. If wearing tall hats gets you better grades, then people will wear taller and taller hats until people end up with back and neck problems.

    (And something like this *does* happen with carpal tunnel syndrome.)

    The problem with prescription drugs is that when you hit the wall, it's usually something more serious than feeling miserable for a day or two.
  22. Dec 16, 2009 #21
    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    I don't think that we are talking about whether or not individuals should or shouldn't use them, since I think that's a pointless discussion. If I tell you that I've come to the conclusion that you shouldn't use these drugs, I don't think you are going to listen to me. If I tell you that I will give you $1 million to change your behavior somehow, then there is a good chance that you will do it.

    I'm more interested in why people do or don't to certain things, rather than whether people should or shouldn't do them, because the later turns out to be more interesting and useful. I'm also not that much of a fan of the lecture as a form of education. If someone gives a speech saying that you shouldn't take formula X, that's not going to be useful. If you take formula X, and the next day you either totally zone out or you turn into Einstein, that's going to be a more effective lesson.

    If it works..... I lot of this has to do with my relationship with coffee. What I find is that coffee really does help to keep me awake, but if I use it for long periods of time, it causes increasingly large problems. It's actually better for me to cut down on the coffee and try to relax.

    Bur what worries me is that if it turns out that SSRI's will let people absorb twice as much material, then what is going to eventually happen is that people will hand out SSRI's and they'll assign twice as much material so you are going to end up with the same stress level until something breaks.

    Also, there are broader educational issues here. If SSRI's make it easier to learn the material, then people might be a bit too focused on learning the material rather than questioning if the material should be taught. That may not be such a good thing.
  23. Dec 16, 2009 #22
    Re: Harvard and MIT, and my university

    At my school adderall is everywhere. I think I know more people that either take it before every test or have at least tried it a few times than people that haven't tried it at all. Most of these falling into the first category.

    In some cases, the diffrence between a B+ and a B- is huge. A few of my friends just lost their scholarships because they dropped to a 2.9 cum. I know this is a rare occurance but there is a lot of pressure felt by many of the first and second year engineering students here to get As abd B+ to make sure they don't lose their scholarships. And they will take any advantage they can get. There is also a lot of pressure on the students to do well because of the co-op program at my school. Some jobs you can't even send your resume to if you don't have at least a 3.3 or 3.5. So those few classes with a half letter grade difference can mean a lot.

    I agree here. I don't know of any really bad things happening due to people I know taking too much adderall but that doesn't mean it won't happen. I have seen someones legs give out on them while walking back from a final because they were so exhausted from not sleeping for 2 days, they took adderall to stay awake.

    Students take adderall because there is such a massive amount of pressure on them to perform, at least at my school. How tough it will be is drilled into us since orientation. They say, "55% of you will drop out of the program by the end of freshmen year". The professors scare most of the students into thinking they won't make it and don't focus enough on what they need to do in order to make it. These students then try to do everything they can to make sure they have an edge and won't fall into that 55%.
  24. Dec 16, 2009 #23
    I have ADHD. I take Adderall IR twice a day. My roommate and a couple other friends knew and told a few other kids on our floor and eventually the word spread. I can't go anywhere without someone saying "Hey, you have Adderall right?". I think that the misuse of Adderall & other amphetamines is an emerging epidemic in academics. Adderall goes for $5-7 a pill around here. I refuse to sell mine, but I could easily make over $400 with a month's supply.
  25. Dec 16, 2009 #24

    Its about the same here depending on whether or not it is an XR and how many mg it is. A friend of mine that has ADD rarely takes it himself, he just sells it. He usually saves it until finals week because the price per pill goes way up then.
  26. Dec 16, 2009 #25


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    I don't think this is anything new. I'm pretty sure students have been experimenting with drugs all the way back to the time of Socrates. There will always be students who are willing to try something to give them that edge - even if the pressure to perform isn't all that great. People naturally want to do well at the tasks they chose to take on. So even if we somehow change the university environment to reduce the pressure, I doubt the drug issue will go away. People will still take risks just for the heck of it.

    There will also always be people who don't approve of such risks. To quote an earlier post:
    They're the ones whose taxes pay for your hospital bed when things don't work out.
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