Original Research

Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 28, Issue 8, pp 1028-1034

First online:

Cognitive Enhancement Drug Use Among Future Physicians: Findings from a Multi-Institutional Census of Medical Students

  • Robyn M. EmanuelAffiliated withMayo ClinicChicago Medical School, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science
  • , Sandra L. FrellsenAffiliated withDepartment of Medicine at Rush Medical College, Rush University
  • , Kathleen J. KashimaAffiliated withUniversity of Illinois College of Medicine
  • , Sandra M. SanguinoAffiliated withNorthwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • , Frederick S. SierlesAffiliated withDepartment of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science
  • , Cathy J. LazarusAffiliated withTulane University School of MedicineSoutheast Louisiana Veterans Health Care SystemRosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science Email author 

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Nonmedical use of prescription psychostimulants such as methylphenidate and amphetamine salts for the purpose of cognitive enhancement is a growing trend, particularly in educational environments. To our knowledge, no recent studies have evaluated the use of these psychostimulants in a medical academic setting.


To conduct an online census of psychostimulant use among medical students.


In 2011, we conducted a multi-institutional census using a 31–48 item online survey regarding use of prescription psychostimulants.


2,732 actively enrolled medical students at four private and public medical schools in the greater Chicago area.


Prevalence and correlates of psychostimulant use


1,115 (41 %) of students responded to the web-based questionnaire (range 26–47 % among schools). On average, students were 25.1 years of age (SD = 2.7, range 20–49), and single (70 %). Overall, 18 % (198/1,115) of this medical student sample had used prescription psychostimulants at least once in their lifetime, with first use most often in college. Of these, 11 % (117/1,115) of students reported use during medical school (range 7–16 % among schools). Psychostimulant use was significantly correlated with use of barbiturates, ecstasy, and tranquilizers (Pearson’s correlation r > 0.5, Student’s t-test p < 0.01); male gender (21 % male versus 15 % female, Chi squared p = 0.007); and training at a medical school which by student self-report determined class rank (68 % versus 51 %, Chi-squared p = 0.018). Non-users were more likely to be first year students (Chi-squared p = 0.048) or to have grown up outside of the United States (Chi-squared p = 0.013).


Use of psychostimulants, including use without a prescription, is common among medical students. Further study of the side effects, medical implications, and use during post-graduate medical training and medical practice is needed to inform evidence-based policy.


cognitive enhancement nootropics amphetamine salts methylphenidate medical students drug use