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Taking stimulants like Adderall without ADHD decreases productivity, study finds

Doctors search for options amid drug shortage
U.S. drug shortage has doctors scrambling for alternative treatments 02:43

Taking stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin without having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, the condition for which they are commonly prescribed, can result in decreased productivity, according to a new study. The medications have been widely used by people who don't actually have an ADHD diagnosis but believe they might boost focus or productivity.

For the study, researchers tested the response in neurotypical young adults, ages 18 to 35, and found that after a dose of one of three so-called "smart drugs" they actually had small decreases in accuracy and efficiency on a cognitive task, along with large increases in time and effort, compared to without the drugs. The study was published Wednesday in the journal SciencesAdvances.

When given methylphenidate (sold under the brand name Ritalin), for example, participants took about 50% longer to complete the given task compared to when they got a placebo. Participants who were high performers with the placebo also tended to show a bigger decrease in performance and productivity after receiving a drug.

As the authors note, these prescription-only drugs are "increasingly used by employees and students as 'smart drugs' to enhance workplace or academic productivity," including focusing on work or cramming for exams.

In some middle and high schools in the United States, about 1 in 4 students report misuing prescription stimulants for ADHD during the year prior, a recent study found.

"Our results suggest that these drugs don't actually make you 'smarter,'" Peter Bossaerts, one of the authors of the study and a professor of neuroeonomics at the University of Cambridge, said in a news release. "Because of the dopamine the drugs induce, we expected to see increased motivation, and they do motivate one to try harder. However, we discovered that this exertion caused more erratic thinking."

Lead author Elizabeth Bowman, a researcher at the Centre for Brain, Mind and Markets at the University of Melbourne, said, "our research shows drugs that are expected to improve cognitive performance in patients may actually be leading to healthy users working harder while producing a lower quality of work in a longer amount of time."

This study comes at a time when shortages of these and other drugs in the U.S. have made access more difficult.

Drug shortages increased almost 30% between 2021 and 2022, impacting 295 products at the end of last year, according to a March report from Democrats on the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental affairs. 

The shortages pose threats to patients, with some facing "devastating consequences," including medication errors and treatment delays, the report stated.

One of these drugs? Adderall — raising concerns for both health care providers and patients with ADHD.

Clinicians say the shortage of Adderall and other stimulants is having a negative impact on patients who depend on them to concentrate at work and school, which could possibly lead to depression and mental exhaustion, CBS News Detroit recently reported.

-Aimee Picchi and Cryss Walker contributed to this report

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