According to a report issued by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Adderall and other psychostimulant abuse seems to be on the rise among high schoolers, while perceived risk of psychostimulant abuse is on the decline. In 2012, as many as 8 percent of 12th graders were estimated to have used Adderall without a prescription, while the rate of perceived risk among this same group was as low as 35 percent. This startling statistic poses the question of what rising psychostimulant abuse could mean for not only cognition but also mood and motivation.
Torben Kjaersgaard of the Department of Public Health and Sport Science at Aarhus University in Denmark had this very same question when considering the effects of coffee on motivation, and how they might compare to the effects of psychostimulant abuse. In his recent paper “Enhancing Motivation by Use of Prescription Stimulants: The Ethics of Motivation Enhancement,” Kjaersgaard explores the ethical issues surrounding psychostimulant abuse among healthy individuals for cognitive improvement. He then raises the concern that artificially boosting motivation could have long-term effects on overall happiness and satisfaction in life. After all, if we are abusing prescription drugs to help us find interest and enjoyment in our college majors and careers, what does that say about the paths we have chosen for ourselves?
What does this mean for cognitively sound individuals who take ADHD or wakefulness disorder drugs like Adderall and modafinil? While these “smart pills” might offer a temporary boost in concentration and memory, even for those who do not require prescriptions for cognition, they could have more damaging long-term effects on how we live our lives. Repeated use of ADHD and wakefulness disorder drugs in order to achieve “artificial motivation” (as Scientific American so dubs it) ultimately keeps individuals in pursuits they are not interested in. Kjaersgaard poses that this could cause many individuals to lead deeply inauthentic lives.
Kjaersgaard’s assertions open up an interesting pathway in terms of researching the effects of psychostimulant abuse. He calls for further research not only on these drugs’ cognitive effects but also on their mood and motivational effects. In fact, Kjaersgaard feels that these drugs might not enhance cognition at all, making research into mood and motivational effects all-the-more necessary. Scientific American cites a study of 50 experiments that tested the cognitive effects of drugs like Adderall and Ritalin on cognitively sound young adults. The results were mixed, with some experiments seeing significant increases in cognitive ability and others seeing null results. The study further asserted that many other null results likely go unreported.
So how do these findings reconcile with accounts from students and young professionals that insist on these drugs’ cognition-enhancing abilities? Only time and further research into psychostimulant abuse will tell.
Lee Williams, LCSW, SUDC is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Substance Use Disorder Counselor. He graduated from the University of Utah with a Master’s Degree in Social Work and a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology with Certification in Criminology and Corrections. He is currently working on a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. His professional experience in the field of addiction has been centered on mental health and forensic social work. Lee has actively worked in a 12-step approach to the treatment of substance use disorder for over a decade. In addition to his love for working in the field of addiction, Lee’s greatest joys are in his experiences as a husband and father.