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Brown University researchers say Adderall and Ritalin don’t improve focus in surprising study

Adderall, Ritalin, and similar medications work differently than previously understood.

Brown University researchers say Adderall and Ritalin don’t improve focus in surprising study
[Photo: Sponge/Wikimedia Commons]
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What’s that? Over there? Hear that sound? You may have heard that the medications Adderall and Ritalin help people concentrate. Adderall and Ritalin are frequently prescribed to ADHD patients, and are just as commonly swallowed and snorted as late-night study aids across university campuses. Except it turns out that these stimulants neither help users concentrate nor focus.

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A new study in Science out of Brown University shows that Adderall, Ritalin, and similar medications work differently than previously understood.

“We’ve known for a long time that when you give people these types of stimulants, you get enhanced performance,” said coauthor Andrew Westbrook, a post doctoral research at Brown University, in a statement. “But is that due to an increased ability, or is it due to increased motivation? We didn’t know which of these two factors were contributing and to what degree.”

The key phrase is cognitive motivation. The study shows that the medications spike mental awareness of the benefits of completing a difficult task. They do this by increasing the amount of dopamine released into a part of the brain called the striatum. Dopamine moderates motivation, and so the mind downplays the costs and difficulties of a task, while increasing the apparent advantages. The researchers found no increases in ability.

This is news to the more than 16 million adults who are prescribed stimulants such as Ritalin annually, and the 5 million more misuse prescriptions, according to a 2018 study from the National Institutes of Health.