Many college students turn to ADHD medications during exam week, treating the prescription stimulants as "smart drugs" that will enhance their academic performance.
But a new study shows that drugs like Adderall do not improve, and can actually impair, brain function in healthy students who take the drug hoping for an intelligence boost.
"It's not a smart drug. It was not suddenly improving their ability to comprehend information they were reading," said lead researcher Lisa Weyandt, a professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island.
As many as a third of college students have reported turning to ADHD medications to give themselves an edge on their studies, Weyandt said.
The thinking is that if the drugs help kids with ADHD improve their focus, they should provide the same benefit for people who don't have the disorder, she said.
To test whether this effect is real or not, she and her colleagues recruited 13 students to participate in two five-hour study sessions in the lab. The students took a standard 30mg dose of Adderall before one session, and a placebo capsule before the other.
Students on Adderall did experience an increase in their blood pressure and heart rate. "The medication was having a physiological effect on their brain," Weyandt said.
The students also showed an improvement in their alertness and their ability to focus, the researchers found.
However, students on Adderall experienced no improvement in reading comprehension, reading fluency or factual recall, compared to when they'd taken a placebo, Weyandt said.
"We read aloud stories to them and asked them to recall factual information from the stories," she said. "That didn't improve."
Worse, the ADHD stimulant actually impaired students' working memory, Weyandt said.
"Working memory is your ability to remember and use information in your mind for solving a problem," she said. "If you have to remember someone's telephone number and you just have to remember it in your mind, you can't write it down – that's working memory."
People with ADHD often have less neural activity in regions of the brain that control working memory, attention and self-control, Weyandt said. Adderall and similar medications increase activity in those regions, bringing them up to normal levels.
"If your brain is functioning normally in those regions, the medication is unlikely to have a positive effect on cognition and may actually impair cognition," Weyandt said. "In other words, you need to have a deficit to benefit from the medicine."
The developing brain
The new study was published recently in the journal Pharmacy.
"They're often misused [ADHD drugs] because people pull all-nighters and they're tired, and they think it's going to keep them awake. Maybe it does, but it's certainly not going to help with their academic work," said Dr Victor Fornari, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York.
Fornari is particularly concerned that the misuse of ADHD drugs could take a toll on the developing brains of college students, particularly if combined with alcohol and other substances typically abused on campuses.
"The brain is still developing until the mid to late 20s. It's important to keep it healthy," Fornari said.
Weyandt added that there's also a chance that an ADHD stimulant like Adderall – which is essentially an amphetamine – could endanger a student's heart health.
"If you were a student who had some type of underlying cardiac arrhythmia and you were unaware of it and took a prescription stimulant, it could cause serious cardiac problems," Weyandt said. "That would be rare, but it's possible."
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