“The drugs, such as Ritalin, are commonly prescribed to people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), to help enhance focus and cognitive performance,” said SWNS.
However, many students without ADHD often take these types of drugs to help them focus during revision for exams.
In four double-blinded, randomized trials — each conducted a week apart— the same 40 healthy participants took one of three popular “smart” drugs or a placebo.
These were methylphenidate, sold as Ritalin; modafinil, more commonly known as Provigil; and dextroamphetamine, which is sold under the name of Adderall.
Each person was assessed on how they performed in a test designed to model the complex decision-making and problem-solving models in their everyday lives.
Participants were asked to complete an exercise known as the Knapsack Optimization Problem, or “knapsack task.”
In the task, they were given a virtual backpack and a selection of items of different weights and values.
They had to figure out how to best allocate items to the bag, and to maximize the overall value of its contents.
Those who were taking the drugs saw small decreases in accuracy and efficiency, along with large increases in time and effort, relative to their results when not taking the drugs.
When given Ritalin, participants took around 50 percent longer on average than it took them when given the placebo.
Also, participants who performed at a higher level with the placebo tended to show a bigger decrease in performance and productivity after receiving a drug.
Those who placed in the top 25 percent under a placebo regularly ended up in the bottom 25 percent under Ritalin.
“Our results suggest that these drugs don’t actually make you ‘smarter’,” said Professor Peter Bossaerts, a professor of neuro-economics at the University of Cambridge. Professor Bossaerts believes more research needs to be done to find out what effects the drugs are having on users without ADHD.
“Because of the dopamine the drugs induce, we expected to see increased motivation, and they do motivate one to try harder,” he says.
However, he explained, the findings further revealed that this exertion caused more erratic thinking — “in ways that we could make precise … because the knapsack task had been widely studied in computer science”.
“Performance did not generally increase, so questions remain about how the drugs are affecting people’s minds and their decision-making.”
To study author, Dr.Elizabeth Bowman who is researcher at the Center for Brain, Mind and Markets at the University of Melbourne, the 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.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
Edited by Nalova Akua and Judy J. Rotich
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