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Study Drugs

Medically reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD

What Are Study Drugs?

Study drugs are usually prescription stimulants that are used to increase alertness and energy for a short time. They also increase heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Prescription stimulants used as study drugs include:

  • amphetamines like Adderall, Dexedrine, or Vyvanse
  • methylphenidates like Ritalin or Concerta

Doctors prescribe medicines like Adderall and Ritalin to treat ADHD. Sometimes, people who don't have ADHD use these medicines because they think they'll help them do better in school. That's how they got the name "study drugs." Study drugs may help a person focus and stay awake longer, but they don’t increase learning or thinking ability or improve grades.

How Do Study Drugs Affect the Brain?

Nerve cells in the brain send messages back and forth by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters. When someone takes prescription stimulants, the drugs boosts certain neurotransmitters in the brain. This leads to the common effects of these medicines, including increased focus and concentration.

The Downsides of Study Drugs

When doctors prescribe stimulants for ADHD, they start with a low dose. If someone needs more, they build up slowly and watch for side effects. When someone does not use these medicines as prescribed or takes them without a prescription, they are more likely to have side effects. These include:

  • trouble sleeping
  • poor appetite
  • high blood pressure
  • irregular heartbeats
  • nervousness

Stimulants can also cause headaches, irritability, and mood swings. Serious medical problems — like heart attacks, strokes, or seizures — can happen. Mixing study drugs with alcohol, over-the-counter cold medicines, or other drugs can make things worse.

Lots of people who start taking study drugs think they're harmless — or they think they'll just use them once (like to get through finals). Over time, people who abuse stimulants can become dependent on them. If they try to quit, they may have withdrawal symptoms like sleep problems, tiredness, and depression.

The health risks aren't the only downside to study drugs. Students sharing, selling, or using  prescription drugs illegally may get suspended from school, have to pay fines, and face criminal charges.

Alternatives to Study Drugs

If you need to focus and get schoolwork done, there are better choices than study drugs. Here are some proven ways to boost concentration and beat stress:

  • A good night's sleep. Getting enough rest at night improves memory and will help you focus, learn, and think clearly. Teens need about 9 hours of sleep at night.
  • Exercise. Get energized the natural way by moving your body. Play sports, go for a gym workout or run, try yoga or take a walk. Exercise boosts learning, memory, and concentration. Regular exercise also improves mood, helps people sleep, and reduces stress.
  • Eating right. Good nutrition is key to a healthy body and mind. Don’t skip meals and choose a variety of healthy foods (like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein) to fuel the brain and help keep energy levels high.
  • Meditation. Meditating before tackling a big study session can clear the mind and help you focus on the task at hand. Even a few minutes of meditation a day can lower stress.
Medically reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2022