University and college students who abuse stimulants like Ritalin are often unaware of the risks, a medical journal editorial says.

Campus administrators need to do more to protect young adults and educate them about the dangers of illicit stimulant use, editors of the Canadian Medical Association Journal said Tuesday. 

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Students may abuse stimulants for a perceived boost in attention and alertness but there is no evidence of those effects. (Marcelo Del Pozo/Reuters)

Students may abuse prescription drugs such as methylphenidate or Ritalin and atomoxetine or Strattera for a perceived boost in academic performance through enhanced attention and alertness, Dr. Daniel Rosenfield of the University of Toronto and SickKids Hospital and co-authors said.

But evidence suggests no boost in cognition among those using the stimulants compared with a placebo, the editors said.

"We must remember that the majority of students who inappropriately use these medications have good intentions but may simply need reliable information or resources to make good choices," the editorial team wrote.

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"Like doping in sports, abuse of stimulants by our best and brightest students should be denormalized by being viewed as cheating or substance abuse, pure and simple."

Cocaine comparison

Extrapolating from research on people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or ADHD, the potential harms of the stimulants include death, life-threatening hypertension and heart rhythm disturbances, serious overdoses, dependence and depression.

A recent review concluded that the addictive potential of Ritalin for example concluded its "reinforcing effects" were similar to that of cocaine and speed.

Like binge and underage drinking, university administrators need to be vigilant because they could be held responsible for consequences of stimulant abuse on campus, the authors said.

They suggested that postsecondary institutions start using education campaigns to debunk myths and expose risks, as they did in anti-smoking campaigns.