If you want to become smarter and more focused, you might try meditation, ample sleep, and intensive study. Other people, particularly and increasingly college students, are substituting the first two recommendations with amphetamines. And they are studying harder than ever… maybe. It seems as though society doesn’t know the actual effects of amphetamines like Adderall and Ritalin, but instead assumes they are akin to Bradley Cooper’s experience in Limitless. Here is some of what we know about the ways amphetamines work on the molecular, psychophysical, and social level.
What are amphetamines and how do they work?
The short answer is that they kinda look like neurotransmitters and they determine the amount of free-floating dopamine in the brain. If the reader would prefer to skip the technical explanation (which we have tried to make as straightforward as possible), do you really? Are you sure? Fine, then there is no need to read this section.
For the long answer, let’s first talk about neurotransmitters. Many categories of neurotransmitters exist. Dopamine, which falls under the category of monoamine, is known by some as the “happy hormone” because of its regulation of positive emotion. For the sake of this article, the reader need not concern themselves with the other categories or the chemical characteristics of them. What is worth knowing is that the structure of amphetamine is akin to monoamines, specifically dopamine. It is so structurally similar that the proteins which typically transport dopamine into neurons “confuse” amphetamine for dopamine and bring the former into the cell.
The less dopamine is brought into the cell from the space between them, the more of it will float freely around the brain. This free-floating dopamine is called “tonic dopamine”, and we’ll explain its relevance later. For now, let’s see how this “confusion” of amphetamine for dopamine affects tonic dopamine levels. Think of the transport proteins as Ubers during rush hour in San Francisco. Amphetamine and dopamine are the riders. For every amphetamine that gets a driver, there is one less available for each dopamine molecule. This increases the time dopamine waits outside the cell. Resultantly, tonic dopamine levels increase. Note, there is no Uber Pool for neurotransmitters.
Amphetamine’s neurological effects continue once inside the cell. Despite the aforementioned structural similarities, amphetamine behaves rather unlike dopamine. For starters, it inhibits vesicular monoamine transporters (VMATs). VMATs are the proteins responsible for filling vesicles with neurotransmitters; those neurotransmitters would then be ejected into the synapse when a neuron fires. When amphetamine inhibits VMATs, dopamine stops being stored in vesicles. What then happens to all the unstored intracellular dopamine? It’s gradually secreted as more tonic dopamine.
The icing on the cake of amphetamine’s effect on tonic dopamine is that it inhibits monoamine oxidase (MAO). Now think of tonic dopamine as refuse that has been dumped out of a cell. We recycle some refuse. Dopamine transport proteins recycle the dumped molecules by bringing them back to the cell. We also burn some refuse in an incinerator. MAO is the molecular incinerator that breaks down dopamine. When MAO is inhibited the incinerator stops burning and trashed dopamine remains floating between cells.
Psychoactive and Side Effects
The reader might now wonder what significance free-floating dopamine has in relation to the state of the brain and mind. Thus far, the best of the dubious explanations is that more free-floating dopamine increases the brain’s arousal. Essentially, not as much dopamine needs to be sent to activate recipient neurons if there is already a bunch hanging around.
This supposedly explains why ADHD is treated by a seemingly incongruent prognosis. People with ADHD are theorized to have chronically low amounts of available dopamine; thus, they require more novel stimulation to maintain tolerable amounts of “the happy hormone”. By taking amphetamines, which lower the amount of stimulus a neuron needs to be activated,
People are better able to focus on one thing, like a homework assignment, without being distracted by a need for stimulation.
And while remission of clinical disorders is all well and good, we’ve decided to play into sensationalist media practices by talking about cognitive and physical enhancement from amphetamines, like those in Limitless. Evidence of amphetamine’s cognitive-enhancing effects is inconclusive, but may be converging. A 2011 literature review of the drug’s effects on working memory, declarative memory, and memory consolidation deemed the existent body of research to be contradictory. However, in 2015, a systematic review and analysis of high-quality clinical trials found that at low doses, an amphetamine produces “unambiguous” improvements in cognition, including working memory, long-term episodic memory, and inhibitory control in normal healthy adults. Further studies have supported these findings; memory consolidation, recall of information, enhanced cortical network efficiency, and task saliency (motivation to perform a task) were all linked to controlled use of amphetamines, reinforcing overarching themes of goal-directed behavior, such as studying for an exam. This study also reported that amphetamine improves athletes’ endurance and reaction time. Others have suggested powerlifters can increase muscle strength while taking amphetamines.
So as to avoid the same moralizing lecture your parents or Nancy Reagan gave you about whether amphetamines are ok, yet make clear the potential consequences, consider the following, increasingly wacky, consequences.
- Short-term effects such as a decrease in appetite, nausea, increased blood pressure, and palpitations.
Not very wacky.
- Constriction of the bladder.
A little more silly than the last example.
- Significant decrease in cortical gray matter density. Gray matter is largely composed of the cells that support neurons (glial cells).
Oh no, that wasn’t actually very wacky; just unfortunate.
- Significant increase in the volume of the brain’s ventricles. Ventricles are holes in the brain, not filled with neural tissue, but fluid. Hence, amphetamines can cause literal hollow headedness.
Today, amphetamines have become popularized as their role in being a “smart” drug that any “average” person can rely on to push their physical limits. After all, its first widespread use was among both the Allied and Axis Powers in World War II, when soldiers were given amphetamines to stay alert. Of course, in the time that has passed since then, perceptions have changed as governmental controls have changed.
Nonetheless, the drug is still commonly used for the same purposes — just in different settings. In sales jobs, the drug has historically been given to new recruits to enhance their ability to talk, dial customers, and shrug off the constant rejections. It’s popularized and humored in many movies like the Boiler Room or Wolf of Wall Street. In the world of athletics, Bruce Ervin, the 2013 Defensive End for the Seattle Seahawks, was suspended for testing positive for Adderall. He believed it helped him focus during the high-pressure situations he faced every week on the field. But perhaps the most concerning medium is its use in academia. As college students ourselves, we see the prominence and reliance on this drug across campus first-hand.
Concluding Thoughts from the Authors
(which are totally anecdotal and perhaps deserving of less credence then previous portions of the article)
Hi, it’s me, Augustus, one of the two authors, writing to you in the first person now. Abraham and I realized while writing this that the use of “study drugs” (amphetamines) is something college students all across America have likely heard of or experienced, yet rarely regard in any manner other than jokingly. I remember the first of my friends, who I’ll refer to with the pseudonym “K”, asking for Adderall as early as the midterm season during my first semester. K “needed it” to study for her exam the next day. K’s friends saw her using it and began using it for their own assignments, whether it be essays or computer science projects. They frequently stayed up all night finishing these assignments, and perhaps were only able to because of the amphetamine. In that sense, in that it saved or improved their grade in a class, the drug seemed good.
But now, as Abraham and I have thought about how fellow students like K use the drug, we became aware of commonality in their use: nobody ever needed Adderall to study for an exam that is a week away, or to start a homework assignment that they could have completed in parts over the course of the week. These study drugs were always taken in academic panic mode, at the eleventh hour. So the question that Abraham and I don’t have an answer to, but are curious about, is whether these students are enabling their undisciplined study regimen with study drugs? Maybe students are juggling too much to keep up without this boost, but maybe they aren’t. In light of the uncertainty of the benefits the drug affords, the known consequences, whatever consequences may still be unknown, and the universal tendency for people to procrastinate … maybe we should wait for more clinical research on amphetamines and examine our own habits before we decide to use them.
This article was written by Augustus “Gus” Doricko and Abraham “Abe” Niu. Gus is a tentative Data Science major at UC Berkeley, while Abe studies Cognitive Science. This article was edited by Jandy Le, an Integrative Biology student at Berkeley. Contact NT@B for sources.