'Study Pill' Abuse Rampant Among Korean Students

      February 01, 2007 12:00

      A medication used to treat sufferers of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is being abused by Korean students who want to improve their concentration. Called a "wonder drug" for its power to improve study abilities, increasing numbers of students are taking methylphenidate (MPH) to boost the grades. While the drug causes few side effects in patients with ADHD, experts warn that it can lead to appetite loss and depression in abusers.

      Around 20 clinics and medical centers including child psychiatry hospitals in the affluent Gangnam and Bundang areas of Seoul are prescribing the drug, also known by its trade names Concerta, Metadate and Penid. Many of these businesses advertise with banners calling themselves "learning clinics". Such clinics are also turning up in a few Gangbuk areas and emerging cities around the suburbs.

      ◆ Learning Clinic Bustled with Students Looking for the Drug

      A girl identified by his surname Lee turned to the drug after her class ranking dropped from second or third in middle school to below 20 after she entered a prestigious foreign language high school last year. She sought help at a learning clinic in Gangnam, Seoul. Along with six months of psychotherapy, Lee was prescribed MPH.

      "She tried everything to improve her concentration, including brain respiration, clairvoyance and fast reading," her mother said. Lee's mother gives her two or three MPH pills a day, hoping the drug will help Lee improve her grades.

      In a learning clinic in the affluent Daechi-dong area of southern Seoul Tuesday, around 10 students and their parents lined up after lessons at nearby private cram schools. "My child can't concentrate and he's doing poorly at school," said a mother with a middle school boy. "I brought him here because I think he might have some mental disorder."

      Another woman who brought an elementary school boy said, "His brother is fine but he's too active and distracted. I'm worried he'll do badly at school, so I brought him here." There are already 350 students registered with this clinic, and staffers say they get about 10 calls a day from parents seeking help for their kids. "Sometimes we run out of the drug if too many students visit," an employee at another learning clinic said. "Some children come here for treatment, but many students are just looking to raise their GPA."

      ◆ Drug Has Potentially Dangerous Side Effects

      The amphetamine-like stimulant MPH is commonly used to treat ADHD, a disorder caused by problems of dopamine secretion, a neurotransmitter in the brain which affects learning and self-control. People with ADHD are often distracted, impatient and forgetful. The drug is most commonly imported from the U.S.

      Although it has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, MPH has potential side effects such as appetite loss, sleeplessness, nausea, anxiety, hallucination, dizziness and depression. Professor Hwang Jun-won of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Division at Seoul National University Hospital said that students in the U.S. are also abusing MPH, where the number of people who take the drug is more than three times the number of people with ADHD.

      Prof. Hwang Sang-min of Yonsei University's Department of Psychology said ADHD is a controversial disorder. "ADHD is difficult to diagnose, and the diagnosis can be rather arbitrary depending on the doctor," she said. "I had a student who was doing badly at school and had been diagnosed with ADHD after just a simple, unreliable test in a hospital. I suggested he ignore the diagnosis."

      The president of a learning clinic in Gangnam area agreed that some clinics prescribed the drug "excessively", but said that his clinic was more careful. "In order to prevent mis-diagnosis, we administer a two-and-a-half-hour battery of tests that includes a sentence completion test, a concentration test, intelligence test, emotional disability test and personality test," he said. "Then we counsel the patients and their parents before diagnosing ADHD and prescribing MPH."

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