Adderall is a popular stimulant. Known to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD), those without the condition also use it to increase attention, focus and to lengthen waking hours. In fact, estimates say that 20% of Ivy League college students use the drug at least once during their college years (Loria: 2015). But does it really work for people without ADHD?
Despite Adderall’s reputation for “enhancing performance” research suggests that it instead only corrects deficits. For example, a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania found that although led to some improvements for those who otherwise scored lower on cognitive ability tests, particularly in word recall, shape recognition and perception and abstract reasoning, its usage led to no improvements in cognitive functioning for already high-performing individuals (Ilieva: 2013).
Similar results were found in a study measuring how Adderall affects people’s creativity: although there was some evidence that it may improve some areas of creativity for typically less creative people, for those considered more creative, Adderall either had no effect on their abilities, or even impaired them(Farah: 2008). But how?
As people with ADHD tend to have less neural activity in areas of the brain responsible for executive function, such as working memory, attention and self-control, Adderall and similar medications work by increasing activity in these regions to recreate normal functioning. According to Lisa Weyandt, who has researched the neurocognitive effects of the drug, “If your brain is functioning normally in those regions, the medication is unlikely to have a positive effect on cognition and may actually impair cognition. In other words, you need to have a deficit to benefit from the medicine (University of Rhode Island: 2018).”
During research conducted in 2018, she found similar results when looking at the neurocognitive effects of Adderall in healthy people. A double-blind placebo-controlled study, 13 healthy college students aged 18- 24 were measured for cognitive ability both on Adderall and using a placebo.
Although usage of the drug did tend to improve attention and focus, Weyandt and her team found that this did not lead to improved performance on tests for cognitive functioning, including short-term memory and reading comprehension, when compared to usage of a placebo. In fact, they found that it may have instead worsened their ability to recall lists of numbers and reduced their ability to self-regulate (ADHD Editorial Board: 2018).
To conclude, Adderall may improve some elements of brain function for low-performing individuals even if they don’t have ADHD. Yet, for those who score higher on cognitive tests, Adderall is likely either have no effect, and may even impair their functioning. Thus, while taking it may somewhat help people who score low on cognitive tests to perform certain tasks, for those who already score relatively highly, the drug is likely to fail in meeting any expectations of improved cognition.
Loria, Kevin: Business Insider
Ilieva, I: Pub Med
Farah, Martha J.: Psychopharmacology
ADHD Editorial Board, Additude Mag