The semester may just be starting, but many students are already beginning to worry about managing their workload. Balancing classes, reading assignments, projects, and work can lead students to make some unhealthy decisions. Coffee and energy drinks aren’t the only things students use to improve efficiency during busy weeks, many also turn to ADHD drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse. It is commonly believed by young adults that these drugs help improve academic performance, but according to a study by researchers at the University of Rhode Island and Brown University, the opposite may be true.
The studies’ co-investigators professor of psychology and faculty member Lisa Weyandt with URI’s George and Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience and assistant professor of research in behavioral and social sciences Tara White of Brown University had expected different results.
“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,” Weyandt said. “Not only are they not benefitting from it academically, but it could be negatively affecting their performance.”
The study was the first ever multisite pilot study conducted testing the impact of ADHD medication on healthy college students. According to research by Weyandt and others, the problem surrounding these “study drugs” is high, with an estimated 5 to 35 percent of college students in the United States and European countries without ADHD illegally using these controlled substances, buying or receiving them from peers, friends, or family.
The new study, published last month in the journal Pharmacy, did result in some expected outcomes. The standard 30 mg dose of Adderall did improve attention and focus, which is a typical result from a stimulant. Students participating in the study also said it elevated their mood. While these results seem to be benefits to students, the drugs also impaired working memory. Students taking the ‘study drugs’ saw decreased performance on neurocognitive tasks that measured short-term memory, reading comprehension and fluency.
Weyandt and other investigators in the study believed that the medication affecting working memory adversely is due to the differences in brain activity in students with ADHD and without. Brain scan research shows that a person with ADHD often has less neural activity in the regions of the brain that control executive function: working memory, attention, self-control. For people with ADHD, Adderall and similar medications increase activity in those regions and appear to normalize functioning. The URI and Brown University study found that rather than these drugs having no effect on healthy students, it may actually impair cognition.
The cognitive effects of the medication are relatively small compared to the much larger physical effects on mood and bodily responses. Increases in positive mood, heart rate and blood pressure were all observed in the study.
“These are classic effects of psychostimulants,” White said. “This indicates that the cognitive and the emotional impact of these drugs are separate. How you feel under the drug does not necessarily mean that there is an improvement in cognition; there can be a decrease, as seen here in young adults without ADHD.”
These important and unexpected results open the door for a lot more research to be done on the effects of ADHD medications. Since the findings are based on a pilot study they need to be replicated with a substantially larger sample of college students said Weyandt. Weyandt and White plan to apply for federal funding to continue the research with a larger group of healthy college students.
Emily Fisher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.