ADHD News & Research

New Study: Adderall Effects Detrimental to Students Without ADHD

A small study of Adderall use shows that the stimulant medication may actually impair working memory performance in college students without ADHD, some of whom take the drug illegally to help them study for and take exams.

July 23, 2018

Used illegally as “study aids” by some college students, stimulant medications like Adderall may actually impair working memory performance in individuals without attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), according to a new study.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Rhode Island and Brown University, explored the potential effects of Adderall (relative to placebo) on the cognitive performance of students without ADHD in the areas of memory, reading comprehension, sustained attention, impulsivity, and executive function.1 It also examined the accompanying effects of Adderall on autonomic processes, subjective drug responses, and activated emotion. Findings indicated that non-medical use of Adderall has little impact on cognitive performance in healthy college students, though it may improve attention performance and actually impair working memory performance.

This small pilot study, which used a sample of 13 healthy college students between ages 18 and 24, was the first to explore the cognitive effects of ADHD medication on students without ADHD in conjunction with mood, autonomic effects, and self-perceptions of cognitive enhancement. In the double-blind, placebo-controlled study, each participant completed two test sessions, one with the placebo and one with Adderall. Cognitive tasks were administered during the peak period of the drug effect (between 90 and 120 minutes after the medication was administered). A 30 mg dose of Adderall was selected because it is one of the most commonly prescribed psychostimulants for adults with ADHD, has a known safety profile, and is prone to misuse among college students.

According to the results of a computerized assessment of attention-related problems, Adderall significantly reduced inattention among subjects. However, it also worsened their ability to recall lists of numbers, and had no effect on oral reading performance or story recall. It marginally worsened participants’ perception of their past cognitive and executive functioning in daily activities, as well as their perceived ability to self-regulate.

More significant than these neurocognitive results were the physiological and emotional impacts of Adderall noted in the study. Namely, researchers noted that the medication impacted individuals’ subjective drug experience, activated emotion, and autonomic activity. Reports of activated positive emotion, and feeling “high” were significantly higher with the Adderall than with the placebo. Adderall also increased subjects’ heart rate and blood pressure.

Because of the study’s small sample size, the results may not be statistically meaningful, but they hold implications for future studies, as well as for healthy college students and adults using Adderall to enhance their cognition. Future studies with larger samples are needed to further explore the effects that this study investigated.

1Weyandt LL, White TL, Gudmundsdottir BG, Nitenson AZ, Rathkey ES, De Leon KA, Bjorn SA. (2018). Neurocognitive, Autonomic, and Mood Effects of Adderall: A Pilot Study of Healthy College Students. Pharmacy. 6(3):58.