College students work hard, and many are looking for ways to improve their studying and learn more effectively. Getting more sleep and more exercise would probably help, but up to a third are trying ADHD medications to see if pills can give them that extra boost. A small, recent study shows that they’re not getting the effect they’re looking for.
We’re not talking, here, about teens who have ADHD. There’s robust evidence that medical and non-medical therapy helps people with ADHD stay focused, and medication can help them succeed. But what about the far-larger number of college students who don’t have ADHD. Can they benefit from the same medications?
Researchers at two universities in Rhode Island – a tiny state, but they’ve got 12 colleges overall – picked 13 healthy student volunteers to take tests of their cognitive ability, memory, and other academic measures. They took these tests in a random order on 2 different days. But on one day, they also took the commonly-used ADHD medication Adderall at a nice hefty dose of 30 mg. On the other day, they received placebo. The researchers were then able to compare the differences in their performance.
Some things did change. On Adderall, blood pressure and pulse were higher, as were self-reported positive emotions and energy. However, there were very small effects on actual cognitive or thinking ability, with some small positive and some small negative effects. Working memory – the ability to recall information – was much worse with the medication. Overall, Adderall did not help these college students study better or learn more.
This was a small study, with only 13 subjects. But the results are striking. On college campuses, medications like Adderall are being used both as study aids and as a way to stay up longer and party harder. But they’re not without risks, including depression, psychosis, weight loss, and addiction. These are serious medications, and while they can have a role in helping some people, they ought to be only used when necessary, under medical supervision. They’re not for everyone, and especially not for most college students looking for a way to improve their grades.
Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at the Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child and the creator of The Great Courses’ Medical School for Everyone: Grand Rounds Cases.
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