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“Like with other stimulants, it’s possible to become dependent on or abuse ADHD medications,” says Lenard Adler, MD, a professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center.
Research suggests a growing number of people without ADHD are taking the drugs illegally. To know why, it’s important to know why the drugs are used for ADHD.
Although the exact reason for ADHD isn’t known, experts believe brain signal problems -- how different parts communicate with each other -- are part of the cause. Studies show that certain spots, such as the area just behind your forehead, called the prefrontal cortex, are less active for people with ADHD.
These medications work by stimulating these areas so they receive more signals. So when people who don’t have ADHD take these drugs, they have more activity in the part of their brain that controls behavior and thought.
“It can make you more alert and increase your concentration and metabolism,” Tomaka says.
Since even people without ADHD can get the boost from the medications, they take the drugs illegally to try to do better at school or work, or to feel more alert and focused. Abuse of ADHD medication is increasingly common among college students.
But that’s not the only reason some take it.
“These stimulants can also cause a feeling of euphoria,” Tomaka says. When crushed and snorted or injected, they can lead to a “high” that’s similar to cocaine. This can lead to a psychological and physical dependence on these ADHD drugs.
People who become dependent can have withdrawal symptoms like feeling tired, feeling depressed, or having unusual sleep patterns if they stop taking it.