Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: I know that Adderall is prescribed to children with ADHD. But lately I've been reading stories about college kids who use Adderall to help them study. What is Adderall and who should take it?

Dear Reader: You've hit on a topic that's timely, complex and quite often controversial. When prescribed and used properly, Adderall can be beneficial. But as with any prescription drug, off-label use can create a host of problems.

Look at first-person accounts and you'll find numerous parents of children with ADHD -- that's attention deficit hyperactivity disorder -- who detail the ways that Adderall has helped their son or daughter. But it doesn't take much digging to find that abuse of the drug is a growing problem.

Let's start with the drug itself. Adderall is the brand name of a prescription drug composed of two stimulants -- amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. It has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat children, adolescents and adults who have been diagnosed with ADHD, a condition marked by a cluster of disruptive behaviors. These may include agitation, lack of focus, disorganization, forgetfulness, fidgeting, excessive talking or frequent interrupting. Adderall is not approved for use by anyone younger than 6 years old.

As with all stimulants, Adderall increases the levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical known as a neurotransmitter, which plays a role in learning ability, movement, attention, and in feelings of pleasure or even euphoria. Adderall helps people with ADHD feel calm and remain focused.

The problem is that Adderall abuse among young adults is rising. According to research conducted at Johns Hopkins University, the number of prescriptions for Adderall among young adults remains steady. However, levels of abuse, as well as visits to the emergency room due to adverse effects of that abuse, has spiked.

The newest research shows that misuse of Adderall is highest among young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. Although some may obtain their own prescriptions, most are either buying the medication illegally, or are getting it from family members or friends.

Between 2009 and 2011, the time period covered by the study, use of Adderall among young adults without a prescription rose by 67 percent. During that same time period, ER visits associated with non-prescription Adderall use rose by more than 150 percent.

The drug has a reputation as a study aid that increases concentration and sharpens focus. But non-prescription use of Adderall carries serious risks. Common side effects include stomach upset, increased heart rate, dizziness, dry mouth and mood swings. Adderall is a controlled substance, and possession without a prescription is a felony.

The bottom line is that non-prescription use of Adderall for any reason is both dangerous and illegal.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095.)

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