Given the simultaneous explosion in ADHD diagnosis, prescribed use of stimulants and non-medical use of stimulants, maybe it’s time to look at the cost/benefit ratio. We’ll it’s clear that the benefits aren’t all that. What to make of it?
Researchers are beginning to address this paradox. How can medication that makes children sit still and pay attention not lead to better grades?
One possibility is that children develop tolerance to the drug. Dosage could also play a part: as children grow and put on weight, medication has to be adjusted to keep up, which does not always happen. And many children simply stop taking the drugs, especially in adolescence, when they may begin to feel that it affects their personalities. Children may also stop treatment because of side effects, which can include difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite and mood swings, as well as elevated heart rate.
Or it could be that stimulant medications mainly improve behaviour, not intellectual functioning. In the 1970s, two researchers, Russell Barkley and Charles Cunningham, noted that when children with ADHD took stimulants, parents and teachers rated their academic performance as vastly improved9. But objective measurements showed that the quality of their work hadn’t changed. What looked like achievement was actually manageability in the classroom. If medication made struggling children appear to be doing fine, they might be passed over for needed help, the authors suggested. Janet Currie, an economist at Princeton University in New Jersey, says that she might have been observing just such a phenomenon in the Quebec study that found lower achievement among medicated students1.
And it may simply be that drugs are not enough. Stimulant medications have two core effects: they help people to sustain mental effort, and they make boring, repetitive tasks seem more interesting. Those properties help with many school assignments, but not all of them. Children treated with stimulants would be able to complete a worksheet of simple maths problems faster and more accurately than usual, explains Nora Volkow. But where flexibility of thought is required — for example, if each problem on a worksheet demands a different kind of solution — stimulants do not help.
What about those non-medical users? Don’t they get a boost?
In people without ADHD, such as students who take the drugs without a prescription to help with school work, the intellectual impact of stimulants also remains unimpressive. In a 2012 study of the effects of the amphetamine Adderall on people without ADHD, psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia found no consistent improvement on numerous measures of cognition, even though people taking the medication believed that their performance had been enhanced10.