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Types of Stimulants

Person struggling with a stimulant addiction holding a small baggie of the illicit stimulant cocaine  

Stimulants are drugs that have a stimulating effect on the central nervous system (CNS). CNS stimulants may be readily available (e.g. caffeine), legal and prescribed (e.g. Ritalin, Adderall) or illegal (e.g. cocaine).

Some teens may believe that misusing or abusing prescription stimulants is safer than using illegal stimulants, but this is not true. Research has shown that teens who misuse prescription stimulants, often called “study drugs” or “smart drugs,” do not have higher GPAs or improved academic performance.

Before getting into the details of the types of stimulant drugs and why teenagers use them, it is worth differentiating between the terms “misuse” and “abuse”:

  • Misuse: Intentional improper use of a prescribed drug. For example, someone who takes a larger dose of a prescribed stimulant in order to study for an exam is misusing the drug.
  • Abuse: Use of a prescription or illicit drug with the express intent to get high.

What Are Stimulants Used For?

Teen drug use commonly involves legal or illegal stimulants, which can provide a sense of euphoria, intense focus, energy and a sense of improved social performance and competence. Stimulant misuse is also common among teenagers who want to lose weight.

Stimulants are often co-used with alcohol because they can allow someone to consume vastly more alcohol than they would normally be able to consume. Unfortunately, this can increase the risk of alcohol overdose or encourage someone to participate in risky behaviors (e.g. driving while intoxicated) because they do not ‘feel’ like they are drunk.

Types of Stimulant Drugs

There are several different types of stimulants, all of which act on the brain to increase energy and alertness. Legal stimulants include over-the-counter products like caffeine, nicotine and weight loss pills. Prescription stimulants include Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta. Illegal stimulants include methamphetamine and cocaine.

Prescription Stimulants

Prescription stimulants are most often prescribed to treat ADHD in teens and can improve their focus and attention. Unfortunately, this has given teenagers the misconception that misuse of so-called “study drugs” can improve scholastic performance, even among teenagers without ADHD. A growing body of literature indicates that this is not true, and evidence suggests that prescription stimulant misuse can actually worsen academic performance as well as increase the risk of developing substance use disorders in the future.

Prescription stimulant use is not without risk. All prescription CNS stimulants are classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as Schedule II drugs, meaning that they are associated with a high risk for abuse, dependence and physical and psychological addiction when they are misused or abused.

Many illegal stimulants, including methamphetamine and cocaine, are also Schedule II drugs because the federal government ascribes some medicinal value to them (in contrast to Schedule I drugs like marijuana, which have not yet been recognized as medicinally valuable by the federal government).

Common prescription stimulants include:

  • Amphetamines: Adderall and Dexedrine are common amphetamine brand names. Amphetamine misuse is common among high school and college students because of the misperception that these drugs provide an easy way to improve GPAs and scholastic performance. Amphetamine abuse is common among teenagers as well. Large doses of amphetamines alone can produce euphoria, and many teens combine amphetamines with other drugs in an attempt to enhance intoxication.
  • Methylphenidate: Ritalin and Concerta are common brand names for methylphenidate. Methylphenidate and amphetamines are used, misused and abused in very similar ways.

Methylphenidate and amphetamines have slightly different modes of action in the brain, but both drugs cause increased levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, which are responsible for the overall effects of these types of stimulants.

Illegal Stimulants

There are a number of types of illegal stimulants that have some similar effects as prescription stimulants do. In fact, methamphetamine and amphetamine are pharmacologically very similar drugs but methamphetamine has more potent effects in the brain, making it more addictive.

Common illegal stimulants include:

  • Methamphetamine: Methamphetamine use is incredibly dangerous and is associated with a very high risk of developing dependence and addiction. Desoxyn is a prescription form of methamphetamine that is rarely prescribed and is associated with a similar risk profile as illicit methamphetamine, with the notable exception that Desoxyn production is regulated, so the exact composition of the drug is known. Illicit methamphetamine, on the other hand, is often ‘cut’ or diluted with other compounds, including the extraordinarily dangerous and powerfully addictive opioid fentanyl.
  • Synthetic Stimulants (Bath Salts): Bath salts are extremely dangerous synthetic drugs that belong to the chemical family called cathinone. Bath salts are known to increase dopamine levels in the brain, but a great deal remains unknown about how these drugs work. What is clear is that they are powerfully addictive and can be lethal. Effects of bath salts, especially in high doses or with repeated use, include severe agitation and delirium, hallucinations, violent behavior and dangerous physiological consequences including life-threatening hyperthermia (elevated body temperature), seizures, liver or kidney failure and death.
  • Cocaine: Cocaine is a notorious stimulant that, unlike other popular stimulants, is derived from a plant rather than man-made. Cocaine has a much shorter “high” and does not increase dopamine levels like meth or prescription stimulants, but prevents dopamine “re-uptake” into brain cells, meaning that dopamine is active for longer amounts of time. Despite having natural origins, cocaine is a powerfully addictive drug that is associated with very serious adverse health and social effects.
  • Ecstasy/MDMA: It is important to differentiate between illicit ecstasy and MDMA. MDMA specifically refers to a single chemical stimulant, while the “club drug” known as ecstasy is typically a grab-bag of drugs that may include stimulants and depressants and may or may not contain any MDMA at all. Ecstasy use can be particularly dangerous because of the unknown composition of the drug, which often includes methamphetamine, bath salts or even heroin. This also poses a challenge for people seeking ecstasy treatment, because they may have one or more substance use disorders that are unrelated to MDMA.

Finding Help for Your Teen

Teenagers who are challenged with stimulant use disorders are a unique group that warrants specialized care. Substance use among teenagers is particularly consequential and can have severe impacts on brain development and lifelong adverse social and health ramifications.

Comprehensive rehab for teens has been shown to be more effective than general rehab programs, and it is worth taking the time to find the most appropriate rehab program for your teenager. Look for a multidisciplinary rehab program that uses evidence-based methods to ensure that your teen is getting the best care.

If you are concerned that your teen has a stimulant use disorder, help is available. Next Generation Village offers evidence-based rehab programs that have demonstrated success in helping youth aged 13-17 overcome substance use disorders. Contact us today to learn how professional rehab for teens can help.

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