ADHD Drug Fails to Boost Performance in Healthy Students

August 6, 2018

A pilot study investigating the effects of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medications in college students without ADHD has revealed an unexpected finding: contrary to popular belief, the so-called “study drugs” did not improve cognitive performance in the population.

Lisa Weyandt, PhD
     Lisa Weyandt, PhD

“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,” said study co-investigator Lisa Weyandt, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. “Not only are they not benefitting from it academically, but it could be negatively affecting their performance.”

An estimated 5% to 35% of US college students without ADHD are believed to illegally use ADHD medications in an attempt to better their academic performance, researchers explained.

This first-ever multisite pilot study, which involved 13 healthy college students without ADHD, investigated the effect of the standard 30-mg dose of mixed-salts amphetamine (Adderall) on cognitive, autonomic, and emotional functioning. The double-blind study design assigned each student the ADHD drug during a 5-hour session and placebo during another 5-hour session to allow the researchers to measure the drug effects in individuals and across the group.

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As published in the journal Pharmacy, the findings revealed an expected improvement in attention and focus. However, that improvement failed to generate better performance on neurocognitive tasks that gauged short-term memory, reading comprehension, and fluency

Tara White
     Tara White, PhD

Students experienced much larger effects on positive mood and bodily responses, including heart rate and blood pressure, researchers reported.

“These are classic effects of psychostimulants,” said study co-investigator Tara White, PhD, an assistant professor of research in behavioral and social sciences at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. “The fact that we see these effects on positive emotion and cardiovascular activity, in the same individuals for whom cognitive effects were small or negative in direction, is important. It 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.”

Drs. Weyandt and White plan to apply for federal funding to continue their research with a larger group of healthy college students.

—Jolynn Tumolo

References

Weyandt LL, White TL, Gudmundsdottir BG, et al. Neurocognitive, autonomic, and mood effects of Adderall: a pilot study of healthy college students. Pharmacy. 2018;6(3):E58.

Study: ADHD drugs do not improve cognition in healthy college students [press release]. Kingston, Rhode Island: The University of Rhode Island; July 19, 2018.