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Can Adderall Cause Memory Loss? (& Other Long-Term Effects)

Adderall, a medication prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is commonly abused because it is believed to help cognitive performance.

Recent studies have shown that people who don’t have ADHD will not experience a brain boost by taking Adderall. In fact, it could be the opposite. Those who abuse Adderall may face memory issues and general cognitive decline.

Research on Adderall & Memory Loss

Adderall is not the safe and effective cognitive performance enhancer many think it is. In fact, according to a study conducted by Rhode Island University, Adderall is not likely to increase cognitive abilities in healthy brains. It is likely that it even hinders the memory capabilities of young adults.

This study followed 13 students from Brown University and the University of Rhode Island. The study made sure to only use student volunteers who had never used Adderall before. All the students were given a typical 30 mg (milligram) dose of Adderall during two separate, five-hour sessions. 

The study found that the drug did indeed boost mood and the ability to focus. However, the drug did not lead to an increase in performance on tests, at least not the tests administered, which involved short-term memory and reading comprehension skills. 

Researchers were surprised to find that there was a measured decline in working memory and no evident increase in reading comprehension skills at all. This was unexpected, as the study predicted that they would see an increase in cognitive performance.

Other Reasons for Memory Loss

According to new studies, Adderall does cause memory loss problems.

Memory loss can lead to other cognitive disorders down the line, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

However, if you are experiencing memory issues, there are other possible reasons.

The following could result in memory issues:

  • Normal aging processes
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Thyroid abnormalities
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Head injuries
  • Cerebrovascular disease
  • Cerebral tumors
  • Dehydration
  • Cardiovascular disorders
  • Seizures
  • Alcohol
  • Infection
  • Huntington’s disease

If you have ruled out other possibilities, it is likely that Adderall is the cause of the memory loss. 

Side Effects of Adderall

A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that those with ADHD had a significantly higher chance of developing dementia than those without. Whether this is linked to the treatment of ADHD with Adderall or simply ADHD itself has yet to be determined. 

There have only been studies to confirm short-term memory problems associated with Adderall abuse, but this does not mean such abuse won’t cause significant problems down the road. Amphetamine, the main ingredient in Adderall, is very potent, and it works by altering brain chemistry. Anything that alters brain chemistry and is taken habitually can lead to serious side effects.

Common side effects of Adderall include:

  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Excitability
  • Heart palpitations
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Difficulty achieving orgasm
  • Impotence
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Weight loss
  • Hair loss
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain

If these side effects occur, talk to the prescribing physician as soon as possible.

Perceived Cognitive Improvement

Most of the studies conducted on Adderall conclude that there is not a measurable increase in cognitive performance while using the drug. It does, however, cause some users to feel they are performing better while on it, according to a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania. 

The study followed 47 different subjects. Each of these subjects was in their 20s, and none had been diagnosed with ADHD. The research team tested them on a variety of cognitive criteria, including:

  • Working memory
  • How well they could hold thoughts in their mind and manipulate them
  • Raw intelligence
  • Memories for specific events and faces

Each subject was tested for these cognitive capabilities while they were on Adderall and after taking a placebo. Those who were administered the pills were not aware of which one they were receiving. The study found that there was no significant improvement in cognitive performance in either group.

The study did discover that the subjects who took Adderall were substantially more likely to report that the pill they took enhanced their ability to perform better on the tasks given. Again, neither group was aware of whether they were taking the placebo or Adderall. 

Results of the study show that while Adderall does not typically increase performance on tests, it does give the user a confidence boost. This may, in part, happen because Adderall releases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine activates the brain’s reward centers, typically inducing euphoria. 

Some researchers hypothesize that some of the confidence boosts that come from regular Adderall use is the association with euphoria and schoolwork. There can often be feelings of dread when it comes to the moments leading up to a big exam. Using Adderall before these exams seems to be a way for students to escape the anxiety surrounding tests.

According to the study results, however, the resulting confidence boost did not improve performance.

Dependency 

According to a publication from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 million children between the ages of 4 and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. These children are prescribed Adderall only as a last resort to treat the issue. This is in part because of the long-term risks associated with taking Adderall habitually over an extended period. 

For the same reason, amphetamine (the active ingredient in Adderall) is no longer available over the counter.

Dependency is a serious risk factor with Adderall. As the concentration of the drug starts to dwindle in the blood, the individual may find they have trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, and an overall lack of motivation. They may feel depressed, irritated, lethargic, or fatigued.

Withdrawal can also lead to increased risk of aggression and suicidal thoughts. 

All of these effects can affect memory to some degree.

Long-Term Effects

There are long-term complications associated with Adderall abuse. These include:

  • Heart disease
  • Persistent dizziness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Weight loss
  • Insomnia
  • Dry mouth
  • Heart palpitations
  • Headaches
  • Tremors
  • Trouble breathing
  • Constipation
  • Hyperactivity

High blood pressure and a higher resting heart rate often go hand in hand with long-term stimulant abuse. This risk is increased if you already have heart issues present and/or a history of heart disease in your family.

The longer the drug is abused, the worse the long-term side effects can get. There may also be significant changes in the brain, including mood swings and behavior complications. 

Worsened Issues With Abuse

All the side effects of Adderall are amplified when the drug is abused.

Substance abuse problems can arise from misusing Adderall. Many times, Adderall serves as a gateway drug for students.

Taking the drug regularly in a way that is perceived as “good” (to improve scholastic performance) can create a skewed opinion on drug use in general. Students who would have never considered taking any other drugs before may be more open to the prospect because of their familiarity with Adderall. 

Experts advise that you skip Adderall as a study drug. It is a risky medication to use if you don’t have ADHD, and it’s not very effective. 

The Bottom Line

Overall, Adderall has many short-term and long-term risks associated with its abuse, including the potential for memory loss.

Studies also find there is little to no evidence to suggest that it increases cognitive performance in a healthy brain. The risks far outweigh the benefits, as most are perceived benefits and not actual results.

Sources

(2018) Neurocognitive, Autonomic, and Mood Effects of Adderall: A Pilot Study of Healthy College Students. Pharmacy from https://www.mdpi.com/2226-4787/6/3/58

(January 2018) Previous adult attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder symptoms and risk of dementia with Lewy bodies: a case-control study. National Center for Biotechnology Information from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20491888

(December 2010) Enhancement Stimulants: perceived motivational and cognitive advantages. University of Pennsylvania from https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~mfarah/pdfs/fnins-07-00198.pdf

(May 2017) FastFacts – Attention Hyperactivity Disorder. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/adhd.htm

(August 2018) Why You Should Skip Adderall as a Study Drug. Consumer Reports from https://www.consumerreports.org/drug-safety/skip-adderall-as-study-drug/

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