Your Brain On: Adderall
College students across the country are gearing up for finals, which means anyone with an Adderall prescription is about to become really popular. On some campuses, up to 35 percent of students admit to popping amphetamine-based drugs like Adderall or Concerta to aid with exam cramming, says Lawrence Diller, M.D., a member of the University of California, San Francisco's clinical faculty who has prescribed these drugs and studied their effects for more than three decades. But students aren't the only ones involved with the craze. Adderall use is growing among adults, including women who take extended-release versions of the drug to suppress appetite and help with weight loss, Diller says. In fact, prescriptions for Adderall-style attention deficit drugs have roughly quintupled in the U.S. since 1996. [Tweet this news!]
While many people with attention deficit disorders have benefited from the drug, it can have some scary consequences for those who abuse it, Diller says. Here's a look in your brain as you swallow a drug like Adderall.
After roughly 20 to 30 minutes, you'll experience a mild euphoric lift, Diller explains. Similar to other amphetamines like MDMA (Ecstasy), Adderall mimics feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine by binding to receptors that would normally respond to those hormones. Research shows the drug also blocks chemicals that temper reward-based responses, meaning the high continues till the effects wear off.
At the same time, Adderall provokes some of the same reactions as the fight-or-flight chemical epinephrine, indicates research from the University of Vermont. There is a rush of energy and clarity, Diller says, which focuses your attention and quiets your appetite. This is why some women take the drug to drop pounds, Diller adds. Similar to other stimulants like coffee, Adderall raises your heart rate and blood pressure, Diller says. This cocktail of focus-boosting, feel-good sensations gives your brain the impression that it's incredibly powerful and working at maximum efficiency, Diller adds. "You're king of the world, at least for a little while," he adds.
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Depending on whether you've taken regular Adderall or the extended release version, its effects have largely worn off, meaning levels of feel-good brain chemicals have plummeted. Their absence can leave you feeling drained, or even depressed, Diller says. At the same time, your appetite roars back. "Your body was burning energy while you were on the drug, so when it wears off, you're really hungry," he adds.
More bad news: When you revisit the work you did while your mind was abuzz, you might be disappointed. Diller points to an inflated sense of performance brought on by euphoric chemicals. Adderall can't improve complex thinking tasks like reading comprehension or critical thinking, he adds. So if you had to write or assemble some a report, you may find your amped-up mind produced mediocre results.
Like other stimulants, Adderall can be habit forming. "Your experience the first time may be amazing," Diller says. "But over time that intensity wears off, and you may need higher doses."
You also aren't going to keep off weight unless you continue to swallow the drug, which is the only way to keep your appetite at bay, he says. And because you'll require higher and higher doses to sustain the same effects, this can lead to full-on addiction, Diller explains. (Adderall is structurally and effectively similar to crystal meth, and may be similarly addictive, shows a report from the University of Southern California.)
While lots of people who rely on drugs like Adderall for diagnosed disorders can take it every day without issue, the amphetamines keeps abusers' brains and bodies artificially aroused-and you may need other drugs to help you mellow out and sleep. "You can't function this way in the long run," Diller adds. Of course, this type of Adderall addiction only happens to about one out of every 20 people who take it and similar drugs, says Diller. Managed appropriately, Adderall can be beneficial for some people with significant performance problems involving attention and organization, he says. But the risks for those who abuse the drug are real (and potentially life threatening). "Far too many people who don't really need it get very messed up by this stuff."