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Universiteit Leiden

Does taking Ritalin make you smarter?

Does taking Ritalin make you smarter? Image courtesy of zirconicusso at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Could Ritalin be the new smart pill? Under college students the notion that taking Ritalin leads to better exam results is popular! Read this blog to find out whether this is true and if Ritalin actually increases learning and thus academic performance.

If there were a pill that would make you instantly smarter, would you take it? To some or even most students this sounds like an ideal scenario, so your answer would most likely be: yes! However, this does sound too good to be true, right?
Let’s find out! By the end of this blog post you will know if such a thing is possible.

Some students believe they have found their smart pill in the form of Ritalin. In case you would be willing to try a pill that would make you instantly smarter, a so-called “smart pill”, you are not alone. 4.1% up to 35.3% of US college students have used pills like Ritalin with the purpose of enhancing their academic performance. Now, the key question is, is Ritalin really a smart pill?

In order to answer that question, we will first get down to how this medication works. Some people might already know this, but Ritalin is a type of medication that is prescribed to enhance cognitive functioning in individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In individuals with ADHD the use of Ritalin helps them focus, as it improves sustained attention. Ritalin works by influencing the dopamine balance in the brain, which is a neurotransmitter. Individuals with ADHD have too low levels of available dopamine in the brain area that regulates cognitive functions including focused attention (prefrontal cortex). Ritalin increases levels of dopamine, which leads to an increase of focus and thereby improves their performance. Seeing those results, you might think that taking Ritalin can increase your own performance on exams too.

However, what most students who have tried Ritalin as a smart pill forgot, is that there is of course a difference between individuals who have ADHD and those who don’t. Specifically in terms of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Most people already have normal levels of dopamine and as a consequence, the increase of dopamine via Ritalin won’t likely show the same effects of improved sustained attention for healthy individuals.

Here is what science says: despite the idea of a smart pill being really attractive, there are reasonable grounds to question whether such a smart pill exists. More specifically, a recent review investigated the potential beneficial effects of Ritalin in healthy individuals. This article combined the results of 22 studies, which tested the effects of Ritalin on learning in 24 memory tasks. These tasks measured for instance verbal learning, where a list of words needed to be learned and recalled later. In several tasks mixed results were found. Namely, some studies found no results where others did. But overall the results showed that Ritalin did improve memory function in the case of declarative memory. This is a name for the memory that holds knowledge of facts and language. The found enhancing effect was stronger when individuals were tested with a larger time delay between testing and learning.

All in all Ritalin might improve your performance on a test at least a little, but it seems like we haven’t found the perfect smart pill yet. Not only because of the mixed results, but the medication has some serious side-effects of which some are dangerous. Ritalin use often results in elevated heart rhythm, which could lead to a cardiac arrest. So when you are looking for a quick fix to increase your academic performance Ritalin might not be it.

For those who are disappointed, you can find out more about Ritalin as a smart pill in detail, and other ways to enhance your performance in the book Theory Driven Approaches to Cognitive Enhancement. This book has been published recently and it does include effective methods for enhancing your performance! Last but not least, a tip coming from the book, for those looking for an instant fix: we could recommend drinking coffee. You might already know this; as for less well-known tips we recommend reading the book

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