Mind & Body

Think Twice Before Using Adderall as a Study Drug

Adderall often gets prescribed to people with ADHD; it can help improve their attention spans, memories, and more. But Adderall also gets abused by people without ADHD, who take it sans prescription in the hopes it will make them "smarter." Does Adderall even work as a cognitive booster when you don't medically need it?

Related Video: Adderall's Effects on the Non-ADHD Brain

Adderall Without ADHD

A new study in Pharmacy looks into exactly this, focusing on roughly college-age people — the population most likely to abuse Adderall. The 13 study participants were between 18 and 24 years old and healthy, which meant they didn't have any chronic medical issues.

Over the course of the study, each of them spent two sessions under observation. At the start of each 5.5-hour session, they took a pill. In one session, it was a placebo, and in the other, it was 30 milligrams of Adderall — a dose small enough to be safe for anyone, but big enough to have noticeable effects. The study was double-blind, which meant neither the participants nor the researchers knew if a particular pill was a placebo or Adderall.

After the Adderall had plenty of time to kick in, the researchers gave participants six cognitive tests in a random order. In one test, a researcher read the participant a string of numbers and asked them to verbally recall it, both forward and backward. In another test, participants were asked to hit the space bar on a keyboard when any letter except X appeared on a computer screen.

Throughout the sessions, researchers tested each subject's heart rate and blood pressure every half hour. The researchers also asked them to describe how they felt physically and emotionally. They responded on a scale that ranged from agreement to disagreement, for instance, to statements like "I am high" and "I like the effects I am feeling right now."

What's the Harm?

The researchers found that compared to the placebo, Adderall had significant effects on participants' cognitive abilities. However, the effects weren't all positive. Adderall significantly improved performance on the space bar-task, for instance, suggesting the drug boosts attentiveness even in people who don't need it. However, it significantly hindered performance on the number-recall task. Even if it makes you attentive in the moment, you won't necessarily remember what you paid such close attention to.

Adderall also had strong non-cognitive effects. Participants reported feeling high on Adderall and enjoying the sensation. They also experienced positive emotions, higher heart rate, and higher blood pressure on the drug. This is no surprise; Adderall is a stimulant made from amphetamine, which is chemically similar to methamphetamine. It can also be addictive, though not in the same way.

So overall, the study suggests that Adderall made participants feel good and pay attention, but didn't help them learn in a meaningful long-term way. However, the researchers admit that it's worth taking these results with a grain of salt. The study only had 13 participants and took place in a lab environment free of distractions, which is not how students study in real life — they study surrounded by gadgets and potential distractions, and many struggle with procrastination. Still, the possibility that a drug sometimes used as a study-aid could actually make it harder to remember what you study is worth considering. Maybe stick with coffee and leave the pharmaceuticals to those who really need them.

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There's a fascinating history behind amphetamines. Take it all in with "On Speed: From Benzedrine to Adderall" by Nicholas Rasmussen. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice September 26, 2018

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