March 07, 2010
Ritalin Boosts Learning?

Ritalin isn't just for improving concentration. Ritalin tweaks a receptor in the amygala in a way that boosts learning.

Doctors treat millions of children with Ritalin every year to improve their ability to focus on tasks, but scientists now report that Ritalin also directly enhances the speed of learning.

In animal research, the scientists showed for the first time that Ritalin boosts both of these cognitive abilities by increasing the activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine deep inside the brain. Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers neurons use to communicate with each other. They release the molecule, which then docks onto receptors of other neurons. The research demonstrated that one type of dopamine receptor aids the ability to focus, and another type improves the learning itself.

The scientists also established that Ritalin produces these effects by enhancing brain plasticity strengthening communication between neurons where they meet at the synapse. Research in this field has accelerated as scientists have recognized that our brains can continue to form new connections remain plastic throughout life.

"Since we now know that Ritalin improves behavior through two specific types of neurotransmitter receptors, the finding could help in the development of better targeted drugs, with fewer side effects, to increase focus and learning," said Antonello Bonci, MD, principal investigator at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center and professor of neurology at UCSF. The Gallo Center is affiliated with the UCSF Department of Neurology.

Anyone out there using Ritalin to speed your learning?

Or do you use any other drugs to speed learning? If so, which one?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 March 07 03:56 PM  Brain Enhancement

Anon for good reason - see text said at March 7, 2010 4:34 PM:

When my daughter was an undergraduate in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, she reported that some of her classmates used Ritalin and other nootropics to improve their test performance, and perhaps at other times. She considered it cheating, and I agree given the circumstances.

Gabe said at March 7, 2010 9:37 PM:

"When my daughter was an undergraduate in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, she reported that some of her classmates used Ritalin and other nootropics to improve their test performance, and perhaps at other times. She considered it cheating, and I agree given the circumstances."

A lot of students did Adderall when I was in undergrad. Many of my friends whose older siblings attend medical school say that virtually everyone uses Adderall or Ritalin or something similar in med school. So they don't really consider it cheating since everybody basically uses it.

Kudzu Bob said at March 7, 2010 11:21 PM:

If an actress with a nose that's too big makes use of cosmetic surgery and as a result gets better roles, is that cheating?

Kralizec said at March 8, 2010 12:00 AM:

If taking a substance to improve my ability to learn is cheating, then I am a cheater, and I will cheat to my heart's content. But consider yourself safe with me, "Anon for Good Reason." I wouldn't cook you and eat you to improve my understanding. I promise.

not anon or anonymous said at March 8, 2010 3:05 AM:

I'd not call it cheating, but I can't really fault Anon's daughter for not using them--Ritalin and Adderall are basically speed (amphetamines) which is known to have a lot of damaging side effects.

Lono said at March 8, 2010 11:26 AM:

Can't say I've tried Adderall but Ritalin gave me frikkin' Agoraphobia - which was very odd because I am ADD and tend to have a HUGE tolerance for risk - so basically I am usually excited by novel stimulus where the average man is more cautious.

(too few dopamine receptors I believe is the cause - according to your own science post here)

Although I am interested in Nootropics I have little interest in Adderall due to it's obvious addictive qualities - and undesirably side effects.

I came across this interesting thread the other day - regarding an enlightened and measured approach to "academic doping":

I've yet to try any of the reccomendations - due to budget limitations - but I think anyone who looks at body/mind enhancement as "cheating" is a little archaic and naive... The main consideration on such things should be the risk/reward tradeoff for Human health - as sports or other contests can just set the arbitrary limits of augmentation allowed for their particular competitions.

Hank Bowman, MD said at March 8, 2010 11:27 AM:

The only drug I abused in medical school was caffeine....

But, if a drug enhances a medical students learning (which pretty much makes them better physicians) is it a bad thing?

Java said at March 8, 2010 11:29 AM:

I ingest a xanthine alkaloid compound nearly every day to improve concentration and alertness in graduate school and in business situations. It is a plant-derived psychoactive stimulant drug known popularly as caffeine.

Robin Munn said at March 8, 2010 12:00 PM:

To correct what "not anon or anonymous" just said:

I'm currently taking Ritalin to manage my ADHD, so I've done quite a bit of research on it and its side effects. (I don't know anything about Adderall, so can't address that one). While Ritalin has a *similar* chemical structure to speed, and is a CNS (Central Nervous System) stimulant, it is not an amphetamine and doesn't have the same side-effects. The common side-effects of Ritalin are:

* Sleep deprivation. If taken too late in the evening, Ritalin will tend to keep you awake until it wears off (one dose usually takes four hours to run through the body). This is not too surprising, since it was originally developed to treat narcolepsy.
* Appetite suppression. In many patients (including me), this wears off: for the first couple weeks of taking Ritalin, I was less hungry than normal, and made myself eat on a regular schedule even though I didn't feel hungry. As my body got used to the medication, though, my normal appetite returned. For those whose body never gets used to Ritalin and whose appetite continues to be suppressed, it's usually worth trying a different prescription.
* Feeling "nervous" or jittery. This is usually a sign that the dosage is too high. Just like people respond differently to different amounts of caffeine, people also respond differently to different amounts of Ritalin. If a 20mg dose makes you feel jittery, try a 10mg dose. If a 10mg dose makes you feel jittery, try a 5mg dose.
* Headaches. I never experienced these, but for those who do, it's a good reason to try a different prescription.

There are some other side-effects reported in cases of pre-existing conditions like psychosis, which stimulants can make worse. So depending on the person's psychiatric history, there are some cases where Ritalin should not even be tried.

However, one claim that I've seen repeated often that turns out to be false, or at least omitting vital data, is the claim that Ritalin is addictive and/or dangerous. Every source I've seen claim that Ritalin is dangerous or addictive tends to conflate Ritalin (methylphenidate) and amphetamines. While the two are chemically similar, they are NOT the same, and Ritalin, in the doses prescribed by doctors (usually in the 5-20mg range) is NOT addictive. If taken in higher doses, or taken differently (e.g., snorted like cocaine) then it can be addictive, but fear of addiction should NOT stop you from trying Ritalin if your doctor is suggesting it. See for more details.

And while the plural of "anecdote" is NOT "data", anecdotes can be useful -- and I know from personal experience that Ritalin, at a 15mg/dose level, is not addictive. I've been taking it at that level for over a year now, and I STILL have to set a four-hour timer when I take one dose to remind me when it's time to take the next dose, otherwise I'm likely to forget. Does that sound like addiction to you? :-)

But as for taking Ritalin to enhance learning, I don't know. Treatment of ADD symptoms (ability to focus better and stay "on task" longer) isn't what Randall Parker is talking about here, after all.

Claude Hopper said at March 8, 2010 12:04 PM:

I suspect this is just an acuity/oral/aural drug better known as Bullshit.

Anil Petra said at March 8, 2010 12:41 PM:

I'm glad we now have an evidenced-based explanation for the dramatic improvements in student performance in our schools, since these drugs became commonplace.

Willys said at March 8, 2010 1:17 PM:

How can anyone possibly think this is news? During a period of time in my mid-30's (about 1980) I had the opportunity to abuse a few drugs, Ritalin among them. I discovered the use of Ritalin increased my clarity of thought and learning but alas, was not for me. I was not medically challenged therefore not a candidate for enhancement. Though what I did for myself with pot and other experimentation no Doctor or Psychiatrist could have done for me.

Jonathan Walz said at March 8, 2010 2:01 PM:

I used to take Imipramine, a tricyclic anti-depressant. I never suffered from major depression but was given the drug for sleep. At small doses it is a very good sedative. At higher doses and over time, I found it to have a remarkable effect of clarity of mind and focus. I could read for hours on end and retain at levels of greater comprehension. I could also consume almost endless quantities of caffiene and without ill effect. It was for me, a lifelong student and observer, a unique opportunity to tune out a great deal of mental noise so as to focus in on the pursuit of whatever delighted me within the immediate moment.

JM Hanes said at March 8, 2010 3:04 PM:

The reason some drugs require a prescription is because they are not risk-free. Those risks vary widely between individuals, as do salutary effects, which is why usage, in the case of Ritalin and Adderall should be initiated and monitored by a reputable psychiatrist.

As an individual diagnosed with ADD as an adult, I had an uncomfortable reaction to Ritalin and have been taking Adderall instead for more than 10 years. I take a high dose at minimum intervals, a schedule from which I am not tempted to deviate, because that regimen fixes the debilitating problems it was intended to address. In people with ADD/ADHD, medication is demonstrably beneficial in traditional academic environments. Those who would characterize such improvement as an unfair advantage, however, might contemplate how severely "disadvantaged" an untreated individual can be. Medication as an optional enhancement unrelated to any underlying, clinically diagnosed, condition is a substantively different matter, and should be approached as such. It would be worth examining what are likely to be discrete risks for those who do not need medication for ADD, where Ritalin/Adderall etc. are essentially giving them a chemical burst, instead of correcting a chemical deficiency.

ADD/ADHD is a highly variable, complex condition, which makes definitive answers to many justifiable questions more difficult. It is significant that Ritalin has a nearly opposite effect on ADHD and non-ADHD individuals, something which is most obvious in childhood. While it has a calming effect on ADHD children, it increases nervous energy in their non-ADD peers. Anecdotally, there is a similar differential in the effect of drugs like cocaine in some ADD adults, something which may be highly relevant to questions of addiction in ways that are largely ignored in "civilian" discussions like these.

Those at most risk of addiction and substance abuse are those with UNTREATED (pardon the caps) ADD/ADHD who are disproportionately likely to self-medicate with both high risk drugs and alcohol in "dosages" which far exceed any medication they would otherwise be prescribed. The fact that they are over represented in our prison populations suggest that the lack of mitigation has public as well as personal consequences.

The controversy over "natural" enhancements (diet/sleep/excercise) vs chemical enhancements, has far more to do with mores than medicine and addiction stats. The chemical fix is widely regarded as an offense to the work ethic deemed foundational to an upright and healthy society. Patent over-medication, alas, exacerbates the controversy. In the unsurprising backlash, however, the resulting prejudice against medication, per se, has undesirable side effects of its own. My heart goes out to the many ADD/ADHD children whose lives will be fraught with an unrelenting struggle to live up to expectations which others meet with comparative ease. Medication is not an easy out for such children or for their parents. It means that their lives and their futures don't have to be infinitely harder than the lives of those around them. It means they don't have to go through that life suffering from the mistaken belief that their characters, not body chemistry, are flawed in some incomprehensible way.

You won't find me complaining about others taking unfair advantage on tests -- and apparently increasing their capacity to learn! I'm just grateful that medication has allowed me to welcome each and every day with optimism instead of dread.

TJ said at March 8, 2010 3:13 PM:

This just the steroids argument that's been raging for decades now, with a different drug.

astonerii said at March 8, 2010 3:34 PM:

"If taking a substance to improve my ability to learn is cheating, then I am a cheater, and I will cheat to my heart's content."

It depends on if your truly learning, or just improving temporary information storage in order to pass an exam. If you really learn the subject matter, that is not cheating. If on the other hand, this only improves your short term memory allowing to post better test scores than your actual learned information would allow, that is cheating.

PatrickH said at March 8, 2010 6:49 PM:

I've used modafinil and adrafinil, originally to keep me awake through office cubicle hell post-lunch sleep attacks. I found them both useful for enhancing learning, but, however, in a very specific way: I can study something that would otherwise produce numb-brain much longer than without the drug; I have a greater tolerance for drudgery tasks (I find them drudgery, anyway): things like tidying, organizing, clarifying, studying languages, etc. I find that both drugs, while not inducing an amphetamine-like speedy feeling--no jingle-jangle of the nerves, no tunnel vision uber-focus of the mind, do tend to make me feel concentrated in a way I think of as "Apollonian": rational, clear, conscientious, disciplined. But not, I find, particularly creative or, in business/office/work contexts, strategic. In other words, there seems a slight drawing inward from the more vaporous edges of the mind where connections and insights can occur unbidden. The drawing in improves concentration, but at the expense of breadth, originality and surprise. Nowhere near as badly as does speed, but somewhat.

And no, use of either is not cheating. Any more than is coffee. Every time a new drug that is EFFECTIVE comes along, out come the same old tired tropes, as if the stories of Frankenstein, Icarus and every science fiction yarn where exceeding the limits of nature goes HORRIBLY WRONG, are still boiling away at the back of our brains, trying to scare us into staying within The Limits of God (or Nature). Sigh. Enhancement is often good, people! Try it, you might just like it!

Just be aware of the risks and downsides. If you need to be ultra-creative, maybe back off of modafinil and adrafinil. And in the case of adrafinil, take regular breaks to give your liver a rest--it can be a little tough on that doughty organ. Otherwise, check this stuff out. See if it works. It's the wave of the future in any case.

Anon for good reason - see text said at March 8, 2010 9:17 PM:

It is cheating if the drug is illegal, or prescribed for the wrong purpose, and is not available to other students in the same section.

randy said at March 9, 2010 4:21 AM:

Does anyone know who paid for the research? Was it yet another Big Pharma sponsored "research" to scientists who leaned favorably to the wishes of Big Pharma so they would be eligible for further funded "research" ?

Lono said at March 9, 2010 11:58 AM:

JM Hanes,

Neither drug I think is for me - but I absolutely intimately understand and mostly agree with everything you posted.

It was odd that the few times I tried cocaine in college I became more focused and less "speedy" while the non-ADD users became complete paranoid spazzes. I ultimately did not like the effect, however, as the opiate nature of it interfered with deep rational thinking - even though I could concentrate somewhat better and remain calm for longer periods under its influence.


Did you at all concern yourself with the possible known side effect of losing all of your skin before trying modafinil? That slight, but possible, risk has made me hesitant to try it for "experimental" purposes.


What do YOU think? ('nuff said)

PatrickH said at March 9, 2010 12:17 PM:

Lono, never heard of that risk, but I'll check it out. So no, I did not concern myself with the possible loss of my skin. Okay, checked it out: six cases from 1998 to 2007. So...I'll continue to take my chances, since there are other ways to lose my skin doing things that make me feel falling off a fast-moving vehicle (the fast moving is what makes me feel good, not the falling) which have higher risk than modafinil.

Question: I wonder how many people from 1998 to 2007 lost a significant amount of their skin in accidents caused by sleepiness? More than six?

Moral of the story: Life can dangerous. Enhancement is part of life. So enhancement can be dangerous too. Compare, compare, compare. As usual.

Faruq said at March 9, 2010 1:02 PM:

What's the upward trend with drugs like Ritalin with their use for learning enhancement? I mean, if ritalin can boost learning efficency a little bit today, in the coming years might there be drugs which could boost cognitive functioning by a hell of a lot more? Would all scientists then take these new drugs? I remember that the famous mathematician Erdos could hardly do any work without being on speed.

Lono said at March 9, 2010 8:14 PM:


I guess ignorance is bliss - I'm sure I don;t know the risk of everything I have ever ingested...

But - a disclaimker with - side effects may be fatal loss of skin!?!??

I don't find that an acceptable risk for a modest temporary cognitive enhancement...

(especially when a good nights rest has a similar effect)

Unless they can do a test to clear me for being at risk for this possible danger?

Nate said at March 10, 2010 9:47 AM:

I have not yet (but later, will) read the cited article - however, if Ritalin improves brain plasticity, I would think that it would be an excellent therapeutic drug for recovering stroke victims, etc.
Has anyone investigated this, yet?

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