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July 24, 2018
by Elizabeth Pratt

ADHD "Study Drugs" May Impair Rather Than Help Cognitive Function in College Students

July 24, 2018 08:00 by Elizabeth Pratt  [About the Author]

It’s a phenomenon said to be taking place at college campuses across the country.

Students who are otherwise healthy, take medicines meant for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the hope it will improve their concentration for study and therefore their academic performance.

But a study from researchers at Brown University and the University of Rhode Island has found that not only do taking such "study drugs" not improve cognitive function in students without ADHD, it may actually make their concentration worse.

Prescription stimulants like Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse are used to treat ADHD, a disorder characterised by difficulty concentrating, hyperactivity and impulsive behaviours. But now students in college are turning to these “study drugs” in a bid to improve their grades and make study easier. Research like the study from Brown and Rhode Island Universities suggests that between 5 and 35 per cent of students attending college in the United States or in European countries without ADHD are illegally using these medicines. They may receive or buy them from family, friends and peers.

To determine whether students without ADHD would receive any benefit academically from taking Adderall, the researchers recruited students from both Brown and Rhode Island Universities who had never taken ADHD medication or other drugs. The students were asked to undergo intensive health screenings, and 13 were selected to participate in the final study made up of two five hour sessions.

In a double blind trial, (meaning neither the participants in the study nor the researchers knew who was receiving a placebo and who was receiving Adderall) each of the 13 students received a placebo in one of the five hour sessions and Adderall in the other.

The result surprised the researchers. 

“We hypothesized that Adderall would enhance cognition in the healthy students, but instead, the medication did not improve reading comprehension or fluency, and it impaired working memory,” Tara White, assistant professor of research in behavioral and social sciences at Brown University said in a press release. “Not only are they not benefitting from it academically, but it could be negatively affecting their performance.” 

Although a 30 gram dose of Adderall was found to improve the focus and attention of the students, the effect of the drug did not result in improved academic performance in a series of tests designed to test reading comprehension and fluency and short term memory.

Although Adderall only appeared to make a slight difference to cognitive function, there was a significant impact seen on mood and bodily responses of study participants. Students in the study said their mood improved when taking Adderall, but these same students still didn’t experience any academic benefit.

Study participants also experienced expected physical effects from the drugs like raised blood pressure and increased heart rate. The researchers say this is significant, because although the participants were experiencing physical differences, their cognitive function was not improved.

Although the researchers were surprised to find Adderall impacted the students’ working memory, they have some idea why this might be the case. A person living with ADHD typically has a lower level of neurological activity in the areas of the brain responsible for executive function (self control, focus and attention and working memory). Adderall and similar medications can help a person with ADHD by increasing activity in these regions of the brain and normalize the function. For a person without ADHD, where the brain is functioning normally, Adderall and similar medications are unlikely to positively benefit cognitive function. Given those without ADHD do not have a defecit of neurological activity in these areas, increasing activity in these regions won’t help and can actually make things more difficult.

Given the unexpected results of this study, the researchers are now applying for federal funding to further this research with a larger group of college students.

But even in a pilot study, the researchers say the take home message is clear: if you’re a college student without ADHD, don’t illegally use “study drugs" not meant for you. It won’t help your grades and may actually make things worse.

About the Author

Elizabeth Pratt

Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald,, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.

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