About an hour before any organic chemistry final, there’s usually a student desperate enough to pop some Adderall, hoping that the “smart pill” they bought on the college black market might help them finally understand what they’re doing. As they sit there, waiting for the attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder medication to take effect, that student probably thinks they’re about to ride a high to test victory. But research published Thursday in Pharmacy suggests that line of thinking is a bit off.
The study authors Lisa Weyandt, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island, and Tara White, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Brown University, started out investigating the effects of ADHD medications in students that actually have a diagnosable attention deficit disorder. They showed that in these students, there is decreased activity in the areas of the brain controlling “executive functions,” which can make it hard for them to stay organized or focus.
But because both authors work with college students, they soon became more interested in the misuse of Adderall. In students whose brains aren’t affected by ADHD, does Adderall act as a supercharger? Does it make those areas fly into overdrive and unlock otherwise untapped intellectual ability, as all pill-popping students hope?
“Adderall is not a smart pill,” Weyandt tells Inverse. “It’s not making their cognition better. It is enabling them to stay awake and focus, but it’s not making their cognitive skills superior in any way.”
Weyant and White’s double-blind, placebo-controlled study on 13 college students was a small sample, they admit, but their experiment had a rigorous study design. Neither the students nor the researchers knew who was getting Adderall and who was getting placebo sugar pill.
The students completed six cognitive tests and were assessed for the physiological effects of the drug, like blood pressure and heart rate. These metrics helped them determine whether the aspects of Adderall that get you high are related to the ones that, theoretically, make you smart. “Young people are using this drug as a performance-enhancing agent. So we actually tested their hypothesis,” White tells Inverse. “It’s easy to assume that because you feel a drug effect, but that doesn’t actually tell you what’s happening with cognition.”
The six tests evaluated different aspects of cognition, like working memory, reading ability and reaction time. While students on Adderall did have make fewer errors on a reaction time test, it actually worsened working memory, as shown by a decline in performance on a task where they had to repeat sequences of numbers. In short, Adderall improved focus and attention — but it didn’t actually make anyone smarter.
“Adderall improved attention compared to the placebo, but that’s because it’s a central nervous system stimulant,” Weyandt explains, “If you drink caffeine, doesn’t that make it easier for you to focus? But it’s not going to help you write extreme prose,” she says.
Weyandt and White have a theory that elegantly explains why Adderall isn’t the smart pill some make it out to be. Adderall helps to improve cognitive function the same way that glasses might improve eyesight. But glasses only help you if you have a vision impairment in the first place. “If you have a friend whose vision is fine and they put on glasses, it doesn’t improve their vision,” she explains. “It’s not going to suddenly give them super vision.”
Adderall, they posit, acts the same way. For people diagnosed with ADHD, it can help pull things into focus, but for everyone else, it’s not doing any favors, short of a quick shot of energy to the central nervous system. And let’s be real — we already have coffee for that.