ADHD drugs

Recent studies have found an increase in the use of ADHD drugs among college students to improve cognition. However, one study found that these drugs actually decrease cognitive performance in students without ADHD.

The use of prescription drugs, alcohol, and illegal drugs to improve school performance is becoming more common among college students. In particular, students without ADHD have been using ADHD drugs for improving performance while studying. For this reason, ADHD drugs have been known as “study drugs”.

Research has shown that the illegal use of these ADHD drugs is among 5-35% of college students without ADHD in the United States and Europe. However, no studies have been conducted to find out the impact of the ADHD drugs among the general population of students who do not have ADHD.

A recent, first-ever study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that drugs the use of pharmacological drugs for enhancing cognition increased across all countries with prescription drugs, illegal stimulants, and modafinil.

For the study, they used data from the global drug survey, which is an anonymous web survey on substance use behavior. The survey assesses patterns of use of legal or illegal drugs, motives for their use, and the harms associated with their use. The survey first included substance use for enhancing cognition in 2015 and repeated the questions in a 2017 survey. The survey showed that showed that people without ADHD who used ADHD drugs to enhance cognition found that these drugs had the most beneficial effect on cognitive performance.

However, the results from a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Rhode Island and Brown University in the United States showed that while ADHD drugs do improve attention and focus—a usual result from a stimulant—these drugs failed to improve the performance of neurocognitive tasks. They published their results in Pharmacy.

For the study, the researchers recruited a total of 13 students from both universities. They gave each student either Adderall (ADHD drug) or a placebo. Neither the researchers nor the students knew whether the participant received Adderall or a placebo. They found that Aderrall did improve attention and focus as it is a stimulant, but did not result in better performance on neurocognitive tasks testing short-term memory, and reading comprehension and fluency.

Lisa Weyandt, a co-investigator of the study, noted her theory of why working memory would be affected by the medication. She notes that brain scan research shows that a person with ADHD has less activity in the regions of the brain that control functions of working memory, attention, and self-control. ADHD patients benefit from ADHD drugs because these drugs increase the activity in those regions of the brain and normalize the functioning.

In participants without ADHD, the brain is already functioning normally in those regions, and hence the ADHD drugs are unlikely to have a positive effect on cognition. In contrast, they may actually impair cognition and working memory. It means a person needs to have a deficit to gain benefits from ADHD drugs.

ADHD drugs have much larger effects on mood and bodily responses in individuals without ADHD. While they may improve mood and increase heart rate and blood pressure, the study found to have negative effects on cognition and working memory. Larger studies are needed to continue this research on the use of ADHD drugs among college students who do not have ADHD.

Written by Pratibha Duggal


  1. Maier LJ, Ferris JA, Winstock AR.Pharmacological cognitive enhancement among non-ADHD individuals-A cross-sectional study in 15 countries.Int J Drug Policy. 2018;58:104-112
  2. Study: ADHD drugs do not improve cognition in healthy college students [Internet]. 2018 [cited 5 September 2018]. Available from:
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