The Grapevine

Adderall's Effect On Your Brain: Whatever Obscure Benefits There Are, It's Not Worth It

Adderall
Adderall affects the brain of an ADHD patient differently than it would in a healthy patient. And that's not really a good thing. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

If you’re a college student, there’s a good chance you’re ready to flip your desk over out of studying frustration. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, for finals. And if you’re anything like yours truly when it comes to study habits, you’ve waited until the day before a final exam, or the day before that at most, to study. Somehow, I got through all that procrastination with fairly good grades by forgetting about sleep entirely. Others, however, start to panic, and look to the easiest way to absorb all that information — and in comes the stimulant drug Adderall.

Adderall is an amphetamine with a chemical makeup similar to methamphetamine and MDMA (ecstasy). It’s typically used to treat patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), where it taps into the parts of their brains that control hyperactivity and impulses. It also improves attention and focus. Essentially, it brings the brain down from a state of overstimulation to one of baseline stimulation, which is where most of us are.

But just like many other prescription drugs, Adderall has a way of getting into the hands of people who weren’t given the prescription. Full-time college students aged 18 to 22 are twice as likely to have used Adderall than those who go part-time, and none of it is for a medical purpose, a 2009 government study found. The study also found that 6.4 percent of those students had used the drug over the past year. And other data suggests those numbers are growing. But unlike those with ADHD, the drug ends up over-stimulating the brain of a healthy person.

Once Adderall gets to the brain, it mimics the actions of the neurotransmitters epinephrine (better known as adrenaline), norepinephrine, and dopamine, although in higher quantities. So, as dopamine brings a rush of reward and pleasure to the nucleus accumbens, an area in the forebrain just behind the eyes, epinephrine is tapping into the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our fight-or-flight response, triggering alertness, clarity, and focus. Norepinephrine, meanwhile, works to control all of these activities by facilitating communication between neurons, and helping them to last longer than they normally should. Thus, the chemicals are constantly being released.

It’s because of these effects that Adderall is among the many that are called “study drugs.” It gives students an intense focus on the work they’re doing, and based on anecdotal evidence, it allows them to literally cram more information into their brains than they normally would. Other studies have suggested these benefits aren’t true. However, they also found that non-prescription users of Adderall and other ADHD drugs were more likely to use alcohol and marijuana, to skip class more frequently, and to spend less time studying. So, it’s unclear whether the drugs are just balancing the lack of work or that they don’t actually work.

Adderall sits with heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Schedule II list of substances. That list classifies the drug as one with a high potential for abuse, with the ability to lead to psychological and physical dependence. Indeed, its effects weaken with more frequent use, forcing a person to use higher doses for the same high. Along with that, other side effects include irregular heartbeat, increased blood pressure, anxiety, paranoia, headache, psychosis, and depression. Coming down often includes an intense hunger and exhaustion, since the body has used all its resources to energize the brain.

Perhaps the most concerning part about non-prescription use is that eight out of 10 people don’t realize the harms of the drug. It may or may not improve school performance, but the risks just aren’t worth it. 

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