Think Prescription Stimulants Like Adderall Improve Focus? They Don’t

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New research finds people who misuse prescription stimulants to study may feel more energetic, but they aren’t actually getting a “brain boost.”

College students may want to think twice before taking prescription stimulants to help them study. Getty Images

Prescription drugs like Adderall, commonly prescribed to treat people living with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), also have a history of being misused by people without such conditions who are seeking a “brain boost.”

It’s a growing issue in the United States, particularly among young college students.

But while taking prescription stimulants to study might make students feel like they’re getting more done, these medications ultimately offer more drawbacks than advantages.

Researchers with several University of California campuses wanted to see whether or not using common “study drugs” — namely Adderall — actually help people retain the information they’re absorbing while under the drug’s influence.

Researchers tested and measured what short- and long-term effects these prescription medications had on adults. They recruited 43 people, ages 18 to 35, for a study at UC Irvine’s Sleep and Cognition Lab.

At the start, they tested the participants’ working memory and attention by having them do many things at once, like remembering and manipulating a set of letters while performing simple math equations, then regurgitating the letters they remembered.

Sara Mednick, PhD, the study’s co-author and UCI associate professor of cognitive sciences and director of the campus’s sleep lab, told Healthline the tests were meant to mimic what the human brain typically endures, like remembering a phone number while doing other tasks.

“There’s a specific ability we have to keep information in our heads while we’re doing other things,” she said.

Their experiments started with a placebo pill and, at a later date, with 20 milligrams of a drug akin to Adderall. Researchers repeated the tests after 75 minutes, 12 hours, and 24 hours, where the participants were sequestered overnight in private rooms inside the sleep lab while their brain’s electrical activity was recorded on a machine designed to do just that.

The study was published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.

Overall, researchers noted the perceived benefit of executive function — or the part of the brain that likes to get stuff done — but had no benefit to working memory. (That’s the part of the brain you’re filling up when you’re up late cramming for finals.)

“If you talk to anyone in college who is taking these stimulants, the hope is they’re using them to be able to study and party longer,” Mednick said. “It may make you feel like Superman, but it’s actually not making you smarter.”

Mednick says she’s found in her research numerous college students who say they use stimulant medications to help them study, even if it doesn’t really help them in the long run.

It’s a common scenario that’s well documented.

An often-cited study out of the University of Michigan’s Substance Abuse Research Center says that just more than 2 percent of nearly 11,000 students at 119 universities across the United States in 2001 said they used prescription stimulants for nonmedical reasons within the last month. Twice that amount said they’d done so in the last year.

But an 8-year study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and published in 2017 concluded that, overall, “Nonmedical use of prescription drugs was more prevalent during college than in the later years of the study.”

In other words, most people stopped taking their study drugs after those final finals were over, but some did continue to use them.

James Giordano, PhD, a professor in the neurology and biochemistry departments at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., says amphetamines like the Adderall used in the study are but one class of drug that’s been considered and examined for cognitive and behavioral performance-enhancing effects.

“In many cases, the side effects of the amphetamines outweigh their benefit,” he told Healthline.

But Giordano says a related drug, methylphenidate (Ritalin), has been shown to improve aspects of working memory, episodic memory, and task vigilance.

“At high doses, however, it too can produce amphetamine-like side effects and disrupts sleep patterns,” he said.

Dr. Vernon Williams, a sports neurologist and director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, says the research is “critically important,” considering the “epidemic” of prescription stimulant use among college students and young workers.

The drugs do come with some side effects that are felt differently across many people using various stimulants with varying intensity, such as dry mouth, insomnia, and increased blood pressure and heart rate.

“These may be tolerated by most people,” Williams said, “but they can cause real significant issues.”

The problem with drugs that are used off-label (i.e., for uses nonprescribed and monitored by a qualified medical professional) is when people try to stop using these substances, they see it as a disruption in their lives: a new problem they don’t have time for and even more reason to continue on with the normal habits, Williams says.

“People will rationalize and internalize it,” he said.

Williams and a number of other medical professionals have the same prescription for a variety of conditions, namely those that affect memory and other brain functions: exercise and sleep.

“Exercise is hugely important for the brain,” Williams said.

Even without counting for the different chemicals stirred up in the brain during cardiovascular exercise, it’s still just an opportunity to flood it with oxygenated blood.

Yes, there are prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, and even things lining the shelves and coolers of your nearest corner store that can either help you stay alert or wind down so you can fall asleep. But regular exercise and sleep patterns kept humans alive long before we discovered caffeine.

And even much longer before we invented Adderall.

Sal Raichbach, PsyD, of Ambrosia Treatment Center, says that research into the effects of study drugs like Adderall show there are little, if any, improvements to a person’s cognitive ability.

“The costs certainly outweigh the benefits,” he said.

Raichbach suggests there are healthier, safer ways to improve one’s brain power.

“If someone is trying to improve their memory and cognitive abilities, the best way to do that is through natural ‘mind-expanding’ activities, like reading or learning a new language,” Raichbach said.

“Those are the methods that are scientifically proven. Even though they require more effort than simply taking a pill, the results will last longer and won’t interfere with your sleep or mental health,” he said.

Dr. Chris Carrubba, a physician in Jacksonville, Florida, who consults with numerous medical schools, points out that students shouldn’t wait until the last minute to study for an exam, as cramming rarely works.

“Many students end up relying on stimulant medications because they have procrastinated studying and are now up against the clock for a major exam,” he said.

When talking with students, he equates using study drugs to using pain medications.

“Sure, they may fix a symptom and give you some short-term benefits, but they never address the underlying issues,” Carrubba said.

“Instead of relying on medications that have side effects and can lead to tolerance, you’re better off addressing any underlying aspects that are contributing to your problems,” he said.

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