Health & Medicine

‘Study drug’ Adderall also misused by athletes

Bottles of Adderall, a stimulant.
Bottles of Adderall, a stimulant. video image

Concerns about the prescription stimulant Adderall resurfaced late last month when two high school football players in rural El Dorado County were hospitalized for head injuries following a game, and sheriff’s deputies arrested another student a few days later on suspicion of selling the drug.

One of the injured players, Nick Brown, 15, remains comatose at Sutter Roseville Medical Center.

On Wednesday, a post on the family’s Facebook page, “Pray for Nick Brown,” said there was no new progress to report, and Brown would be transferred to a subacute facility in Southern California. A post earlier in the week said he “showed us the first sign of a possible intentional response.”

Through a message on their Facebook page, the family declined further comment.

What exactly happened in the junior varsity game at Union Mine High School hasn’t been fully explained by the school or law enforcement. But at a news conference on Aug. 31, Lt. Tom Murdoch, spokesman for the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, said law enforcement investigators got involved after classmates reported the players may have taken Adderall, a prescription stimulant used to treat attention-deficit disorders.

“The rumor that we had heard about was Adderall, and that would be the primary focus,” Murdoch told reporters.

The sheriff’s inquiry resulted in the arrest of a 17-year-old male Union Mine student who allegedly furnished classmates with the drug. Investigators served three search warrants on the teen’s locker, backpack and home, where they found Adderall, Murdoch said. The student was taken to El Dorado County juvenile hall. His name was not released because he is a minor.

Murdoch has repeatedly said his office has not established a connection between the suspect and the football players. Even so, the arrest and Murdoch’s comments fueled speculation that the drug may have somehow played a role in the players’ injuries.

Adderall is an amphetamine-based pill commonly prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. It is also used illegally by teens and young adults looking to boost their academic or athletic performance. The drug has become a constant presence on campuses nationwide from elementary to college levels, largely because it’s so widely prescribed.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 percent of children and teens between the ages of 4 and 17 in 2011 had been diagnosed with ADHD – a 41 percent increase compared to 2003. The rate of children taking medication for ADHD jumped from 4.8 percent in 2007 to 6.1 percent in 2011.

Adderall and similar amphetamines are among the most common drugs for treating ADHD in children and adults. The number of prescriptions for the drugs topped 20 million by 2011, according to IMS Health, a firm that tracks prescription pharmaceuticals.

When properly prescribed to schoolchildren and taken in low-dose, slow-release pills, Adderall can be effective in helping kids concentrate on school tasks, said Lawrence Diller, a pediatrician in Walnut Creek who has written several books on medicating children for behavioral problems.

“Low-dose amphetamines get people to stick with things longer that they find boring or difficult,” Diller said. “The hyperactive kid appears to be calmer. They are more deliberate in what they’re doing, and they stick with it.”

When abused by older teens or adults – especially if it’s crushed or poured from capsules then snorted or injected – the drug is more like other forms of amphetamine, including methamphetamine, that have damaging and addictive psychological and physical effects, he said. Amphetamines such as Adderall can also lead to heart problems and psychosis.

“It’s much more associated with euphoria if you crush it and snort it,” Diller said. “Your heart rate goes up much more. When methamphetamine addicts can’t get meth they can use Adderall as a substitute. They’re very similar drugs that cause feelings of euphoria, paranoia and megalomania.”

Diller said athletes using Adderall stand a slightly greater chance of heart failure or strokes, but that the drug by itself would not cause brain injury.

John Daily, the founder and clinical director of Recovery Happens counseling services – with locations in Fair Oaks, Davis and Roseville – said Adderall abuse was a more notable problem 10 years ago.

“We used to see consistent regular Adderall abuse,” Daily said. “It was the drug of choice for some kids.” That epidemic “faded away, and Adderall has stuck around since then academically for midterms and finals.”

“Kids say, ‘It’s midterm season. Could I buy some Adderall off of you to focus and get my homework done?’ ” Daily said.

Discussion forums on social media sites are full of advice about using Adderall for studying . Students who have used the drug to prepare for tests or write papers described experiences in which they’ve taken Adderall and studied for hours nonstop without growing bored or tired.

One poster on Reddit, a site popular with teens, described trying Adderall for the first time after buying five pills for $15.

“I’m a pretty average high school student, good grades, extracurriculars, and very occasionally I’ll smoke a joint with my friends. I mean to say that I’m not a heavy or even moderate drug user; I’m more on the sober side compared to my friends. However a friend of mine told me about Adderall for finals and the SAT, and I was a little curious to see just how focused and attentive schoolwork became on the drug.”

After taking a pill with a paper due, “I sat at my desk for 6 hours and wrote the whole paper start to finish. It isn’t a Jesus drug as I had to proofread and rewrite certain parts of my essay, but I cranked out 90% of the work I had to do and I didn’t even blink. I didn’t get distracted or bored at all.”

Many other posts talk about side effects such as insomnia, sweating, elevated heart rate, weight loss and depression when not using.

One Reddit user said she started taking an Adderall prescription to treat her ADHD and got straight A’s in academically challenging classes. At the end of the semester, however, she said she looked at herself in the mirror and was struck by the drug’s physical effects.

“I was horrified. I had these huge bags under my eyes, and my collarbones were sticking out. I’d lost maybe 10-15 lbs over the semester, and people had commented on my weight, but I did not look healthy.”

Some athletes also take it to improve their focus and energy on the field.

The use of the drug has become a serious issue in the National Football League, which has issued approximately a dozen suspensions for Adderall use in recent years. The NFL and most other professional sports leagues – along with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which regulates Olympic sports – ban Adderall as a performance-enhancing drug.

What role the drug played in the Aug. 28 football game at Union Mine remains undefined. Brown, a sophomore, had brain surgery after suffering a blow to the head that caused subdural bleeding, his family said.

Brown and sophomore Justin Schwartz had just finished leading their junior varsity football team to a 27-8 win over Foothill High School when people saw something was wrong. Then Brown passed out and was transported by helicopter to Sutter Roseville, said Stephen Wehr, superintendent of the El Dorado Union High School District.

Schwartz was taken later that night to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Roseville with a concussion and a nerve injury to his neck, according to Wehr. He was treated and released.

The sheriff’s investigation into illegal Adderall use at Union Mine is ongoing, Murdoch said. But to date there have been no other incidents involving the illegal use of Adderall in schools in El Dorado County, he said.

“We have had no other arrests ... that I am aware of,” he said.

Jacob Richards, a senior at Union Mine, said he has ADD and regularly takes Adderall, which he said is well-known around campus. But no one has ever tried to get him to give them Adderall, he said.

“A lot of people know me, and it’s not a secret that I have ADD,” Richards said. “But no one has ever asked me for it.”

Bee staff writer Ben Egel contributed to this report.

Hudson Sangree: 916-321-1191, @hudson_sangree

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