ADHD News & Research

Study: Adults Without ADHD Abusing Prescription Stimulant Drugs

A new study investigates the risks of prescription drug abuse when healthy adults use ADHD medication as a cognitive enhancement.

April 2, 2015

Prescription stimulant drugs like Ritalin, Daytrana, Concerta and Adderall are amphetamines that can help people with ADHD improve their memory, focus, and control by affecting the brain’s neurotransmitters. For people with the condition, these medications level the playing field at work and in life by balancing dopamine levels otherwise impaired by ADHD. But what if the people taking the drugs don’t actually have ADHD?

A new study suggests this is precisely what’s happening – and long-term consequences on an otherwise healthy, non-ADHD brain are simply unknown.

The report, published in the journal Lancet, posits that millions of adults may be taking ADHD drugs for lifestyle reasons — gaining a competitive edge at work, or a boost of energy. In the short term, these prescriptions can enhance memory, concentration, motivation, attention, and appetite control. In the long term, researchers caution that little data is “available for the long-term application of these drugs” as cognitive enhancers.

There is a large body of research that demonstrates the safety of these medications for people with attention deficit. No comparable studies examine their effects on healthy adults, but we do know that schedule II stimulants have a high potential for abuse, overuse, and dependency when taken by people who do not need the drug to treat symptoms. Still, more adults today are taking prescription ADHD medications than are actually diagnosed with ADHD. Survey research estimates that anywhere between 5 and 35 percent of adults taking stimulants are using them for non-medical, lifestyle purposes. However, most data in this area is focused on investigating illicit drug misuse, not the conscious choice to use stimulants as an enhancement measure.

The study’s authors say that more research is needed to measure the gap between diagnoses and prescriptions. They recognize that current regulations promote research on prescription use to treat a condition. However, “In view of present trends in use and the potential risks and benefits of wider use of pharmacological cognitive enhancers, this scenario should no longer be acceptable.” In other words, more research is needed on the health and safety of non-ADHD adults taking these medications so that physicians present a clear risk-benefit explanation. The researchers hope to learn more about the impact of ADHD medications on neurotypical brains, how they are used, by whom, and why.