Ritalin, Adderall Decreases Productivity in People Without ADHD

Contrary to popular belief, scientists say ADHD medications don't boost performance and productivity in people without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

While drugs to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), such as Ritalin and Adderall, are prescription-only medications, estimates indicate around 20% of teens misuse these stimulants. In addition, other research found that up to 20% of college students also abuse ADHD medications — most often to perform better on tests and exams.

Now, new research from scientists at the University of Cambridge and the University of Melbourne, published on June 14 in Science Advances, suggests that neurotypical people taking ADHD medications — also known as "smart drugs" — to increase focus may actually be harming their ability to complete complex tasks efficiently.

To conduct the double-blinded, randomized trial, the researchers gave 40 healthy participants either methylphenidate, dextroamphetamine, modafinil, or a placebo and then asked the participants to complete complex tasks, including the Knapsack Optimization Problem. This knapsack task required the participants to load a virtual knapsack with items of differing values and weights. The goal was to decide the best way to do this in order to maximize the value of the contents without going over a set weight limit.

The scientists observed that participants given ADHD medications had slightly less accuracy and efficiency during the task. They also took more time and effort to complete the assignment than when they weren't taking the drugs.

For example, participants took about 50% longer to finish the knapsack task while taking methylphenidate than when given the placebo.

In addition, some participants who performed better on the placebo experienced a more significant decrease in productivity and performance when given ADHD medications. In contrast, those who showed decreased performance while taking the placebo only occasionally experienced improved performance after receiving an ADHD drug.

"Our results suggest that these drugs don't actually make you 'smarter,'" explains Professor Peter Bossaerts, Leverhulme International Professor of Neuroeconomics at the University of Cambridge, in a news release. "Because of the dopamine the drugs induce, we expected to see increased motivation, and they do motivate one to try harder. However, we discovered that this exertion caused more erratic thinking […]."

Bossaerts also says because the participant's performance didn't increase while taking the ADHD medication, this leaves unanswered questions about how these drugs impact the brain and decision-making abilities.

Can ADHD medications harm health?

In addition to the potential adverse effects on cognitive performance found in this study, reports also indicate that using ADHD medications for non-medical reasons can pose health risks.

For example, these stimulants can cause increased heart rate, tremors, and high blood pressure and increase a person's risk of heart attack or stroke.

In addition, people misusing stimulants can become dependent on them. That's why people with ADHD taking these medications are monitored closely by their healthcare provider.

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