Non-prescribed stimulants may improve short-term focus but fail users in the long run, UCI researchers say
It’s the age of Ritalin, Adderall and overachievement. Or so it might appear from millennial and Generation Z substance use fueled by a desire to improve academic or mental performance.
But according to a recent study conducted at UC Irvine’s Sleep and Cognition Lab, taking stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin — while slightly improving a person’s short-term focus — can impair sleep and the mental functions that rely on it.
Study co-author Sara Mednick, a UCI associate professor of cognitive sciences and director of the sleep lab, said she decided to take on the subject because, though several labs have conducted studies on psychostimulants, few looked specifically at non-medical use of the drugs.
The researchers’ attention was drawn by the growing national trend among young adults — including at UCI — to take such substances without a prescription.
Prescription stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin are typically given to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. The drugs are intended to increase alertness, attention and energy.
“It’s basically speed,” Mednick said.
“People are reporting that they take [non-prescribed stimulants] to study and get smarter,” Mednick said. “My research is about sleep and how sleep helps you get smarter. My thought was, ‘Are these really making you smarter? Is this really what’s happening or is it making people feel like they are smart?’ ”
A 2016 study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore said it found no increase in Adderall prescriptions from 2006 through 2011. However, the study said, misuse and emergency room visits related to the drug rose dramatically among young adults. About 60% of non-medical users were ages 18 to 25, according to the research.
They got the medication primarily through family and friends without a prescription or physician recommendation, the study said.
The new UCI-led study, funded by an Office of Naval Research grant and a National Institute of Mental Health postdoctoral research training grant, examined 43 participants ages 18 to 35. Before they were given medication, the participants were given working memory and attention tasks.
The attention task required them to follow several moving circles on a screen. The memory task tested whether they could remember and manipulate a set of letters while performing simple math. They were then asked to recall all the letters given to them.
Participants were later given either a placebo or 20 milligrams of dextroamphetamine — a drug in the same class of psychostimulants as Adderall.
They then took the same tests at 75-minute and 12- and 24-hour intervals after each dose to see how the medication affected their attention and working memory. They would then spend the night at the lab, where their brain activity was measured.
“We found no improvement in working memory on stimulants,” Mednick said. “That was surprising. For attention, there was a small increase of about 4%, but that was only during the time people were actually on the drug.”
The main difference for those who took the drug as opposed to the placebo is that they didn’t sleep as well.
Mednick said subjects on the drug typically would lose out on slow-wave sleep, or deep sleep, which is related to memory consolidation and physical and mental restoration.
“Sleep helps retain memories,” Mednick said. “We saw with the placebo that it showed the nice kind of learning you usually see. With the stimulants, there was a decrease in performance.”
“Long-term use of stimulants will show the same effects as sleep deprivation — emotional dysregulation, lack of ability to form long-term memories, weight gain and impaired glucose metabolism, irritability,” Mednick said. Moreover, she added, it’s “a drug that is not actually making you any smarter than you would be if you stuck with the usual method of study, sleep and repeat.”
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