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Why Study Drugs Can Make You Fail Your Finals


ADHD and Treatment

The symptoms of ADHD, as the disorder is commonly known, include difficulty focusing, controlling impulsive behavior and stopping fidgeting. Doctors describe this last symptom as over-activity or hyperactivity. ADHD is usually diagnosed by age 6 or 7. Its symptoms often continue into adolescence and adulthood. ADHD is common too: The disorder affects 9 percent of American children between the ages 13 and 18.

Research has shown Adderall and other similar drugs — sold as Vyvanse, Ritalin and Concerta — effectively treat ADHD. The medicines help patients avoid distractions and stay focused during important tasks, including schoolwork. Although it may seem surprising, these drugs actually are stimulants. These medicines can have an effect similar to caffeine: They “stimulate” the brain. However, stimulants can have a calming effect on children.

ADHD Medication Translates to “Study Drugs”

Students may see ADHD drugs as a way to enhance their mental performance. Misusing the drugs helps them do their best — or so they think. Research shows that students who misuse prescription drugs get worse grades over time than do students who don’t take study drugs.

However, a growing body of research finds that in the long run, achievement scores, grade-point averages or the likelihood of repeating a grade generally aren’t any different in kids with ADHD who take medication compared with those who don’t.

Study and Results

A June study looked at medication usage and educational outcomes of nearly 4,000 students in Quebec over an average of 11 years and found that boys who took ADHD drugs actually performed worse in school than those with a similar number of symptoms who didn’t. Girls taking the medicine reported more emotional problems, according to a working paper published on the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit economics research firm.

Children with ADHD not taking stimulants did far worse than kids taking medication in tasks that involved remembering scenes from a story they both heard and saw illustrated. Kids taking medication did just as well as control children without ADHD, according to the study published in April in the journal Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior.

The desired effects largely don’t seem to translate into the classroom, especially in the long run. In one major, U.S. government-funded study known as the MTA that looked at the long-term effects of ADHD treatment, 579 children with the condition were randomized to one of three different kinds of treatment or a control group for 14 months.

For the first year of the study, the 8- and 9-year-old children who received medication and a combination treatment saw greater improvements in ADHD symptoms than the other two groups. Kids taking medicine also exhibited some improvement in educational outcomes in that first year.

But any so-called benefits of the drug on symptoms dissipated by Year Three. At the most recent set of assessments, the eight-year follow-up, there were no differences between any of the groups on symptoms or academic achievement measures, suggesting that there wasn’t any long-term residual benefit of the treatments during childhood.

Study Drugs Don’t Help

There’s little evidence that the drugs actually improve academic performance.

“I don’t think that at this point we have any clear evidence that stimulants can enhance cognition in non-ADHD individuals,” says James Swanson, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, who studies this issue with colleagues at Florida International University.

One way of interpreting the findings is that the medicine proves effective on immediate classroom behaviors like sitting still and interrupting the teacher less, but it doesn’t help with other factors important to successful completion of homework or test-taking, like family encouragement.

Other studies have shown that kids who take ADHD medication and study early for an exam tend to do just as well, if not better, than kids without ADHD. But those who take medication and study at the last minute don’t do any better.

Many students report they find themselves absorbed in cleaning their rooms rather than studying.

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