The effectiveness of study drugs is currently unknown or debatable. Researchers have conducted more than 100 studies on the effects of amphetamine-based drugs, such as Adderall and Ritalin. The medications are primarily used to treat symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Some studies have found that ADHD medications improved learning in people without ADHD, but others didn’t find any effect. The medications do seem to help students with ADHD concentrate, focus and perform academic tasks. But the specific effects on learning are less clear, according to a review of studies published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews in 2010.
The drugs don’t necessarily affect people who don’t have ADHD the same way that they affect people with ADHD. Even though there is no proof that study drugs improve learning in students who don’t have the mental disorder, a substantial portion of students misuse the medications to prepare for tests.
Almost 4 percent of college students and 3 percent of high school seniors reported using prescription amphetamines regularly, according to a Monitoring the Future survey report published in 2017. Almost 7 percent of 12th-graders and 10 percent of college students said they used the drugs at least once in 2016.
Even if you’re using the drugs for academic purposes, taking ADHD medications without a prescription is illegal. Amphetamines can also cause serious side effects that negate any potential effects on learning or cognition.
Many students use ADHD medications to study because they believe the drugs will help them focus, concentrate and stay awake. They think that if they’re able to focus on studying for longer, they’ll be able to perform better on a test or exam.
Experts generally agree that amphetamines either help people concentrate or make people believe they’re concentrating harder. But the effects that the drugs have on learning is debatable.
In 2011, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania published one of the largest reviews on the effects of prescription stimulants on cognition. They analyzed 45 studies and divided their findings into four categories:
Overall, the authors concluded that the effects of stimulants varied depending on the person, the task and the dosage taken. Despite mixed results, some evidence does indicate that amphetamines improve cognition, they wrote.
Researchers have also reviewed studies on specific drugs. A 2010 review published in Pharmacological Research found that methylphenidate, the active ingredient in Ritalin, improved memory. However, no evidence showed that the drug improved focus, learning, executive function, attention or motivation.
The 2010 review published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that methylphenidate and amphetamine, an ingredient in Adderall, may improve memory. But the drugs don’t promote learning and may impair performance in tasks that require flexibility and planning.
More recently, a 2013 review published in Frontiers in Neuroscience found that students who used study drugs believed the drugs improved motivation, energy and attention. However, the effects of those perceived benefits on academic outcomes was unknown.
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Despite possible benefits, numerous experts and organizations oppose the use of amphetamines for studying. Drugs containing amphetamines are controlled substances because they have a high potential for abuse and addiction.
Even low-dose, short-term use can cause an array of side effects, including headache, nausea, increased body temperature and sleep problems, according to the Center for Substance Abuse Research.
Some students may accept the side effects if it means they’ll perform better on tests, but some side effects may impair academic performance. It’s tough to do well on a test if you had trouble sleeping the night before or if you have low appetite, fever or nausea.
Of course, the risks aren’t worth it if the benefits don’t actually exist. In a 2010 editorial published in the journal Addiction, two experts urged caution and skepticism on the cognitive effects of amphetamines because:
In a 2012 article published in Brain and Behavior, experts from the Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation in Los Angeles wrote that “studies only found a correlation with rote memory tasks, not complex memory, which is more likely to appear on college exams.”
The authors cautioned that positive benefits on working memory only apply to people with low natural intellectual abilities. People with greater intellectual abilities are less likely to benefit from study drugs. Similarly, the limited effects of stimulants on cognitive control appear to occur more often in people who already struggle with cognitive control.
The experts concluded that the effects of smart drugs were a “false promise” and that students were taking “unnecessary risks” by using the addictive drugs to study.
Despite decades of research, we still don’t know enough about the effects of amphetamines on cognition to determine whether they’re effective study drugs. But we do know that ADHD medications cause dangerous side effects when they’re misused, and long-term use can lead to dependence and prescription drug addiction. Thus, the risks probably outweigh the possible benefits.
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