Common assumption has long held that Ritalin, Adderall, and similar drugs work by helping people focus.

A new study shows that these medications — usually prescribed to individuals diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but often used by otherwise healthy people as a “study aid” — actually work by directing the brain to fix its attention on the benefits, rather than the costs, of completing difficult tasks.

The research[1] marks the first time that scientists have examined precisely how stimulants such as Ritalin alter cognitive function.

Dopamine

Their work could open opportunities for further studies to help medical professionals better understand how to identify and treat ADHD, depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders.

“People tend to think, ‘Ritalin and Adderall help me focus.' And they do, in some sense. But what this study shows is that they do so by increasing your cognitive motivation: Your perceived benefits of performing a demanding task are elevated, while the perceived costs are reduced. This effect is separate from any changes in actual ability,”

says co-senior author Michael Frank, a professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University.

According to Frank, stimulants such as Ritalin increase the amount of dopamine released in the striatum, a key region in the brain related to motivation, action, and cognition. Previous research has shown that dopamine, a “chemical messenger” that ferries information between neurons, can greatly influence cognitive and physical behavior.

Several past studies have found, for example, that both rodents and humans are more motivated to perform physically demanding tasks with higher dopamine.

Ability Vs. Motivation

What has remained unknown, though, is whether dopamine can have similar motivational effects on cognition.

“We’ve known for a long time that when you give people these types of stimulants, you get enhanced performance. But is that due to an increased ability, or is it due to increased motivation? We didn’t know which of these two factors were contributing and to what degree.”

says lead author Andrew Westbrook, a postdoctoral researcher.

Frank’s team had previously developed mathematical models[2] suggesting that dopamine alters the degree to which the striatum emphasizes the benefits, rather than the costs, of completing physical and mental actions. Drawing upon these models, the researchers worked to develop an experiment that examined how stimulants that elevated dopamine levels affected people’s mental cost-benefit analyses.

Experiment Design

They worked with 50 healthy women and men ages 18 to 43 in a lab at Radboud University in the Netherlands. First, they measured the natural dopamine levels in each subject’s striatum using brain imaging technology.

Then, they asked the subjects whether they would take part in a series of cognitively demanding tests, some easier and others more difficult, in exchange for certain amounts of money. Subjects who agreed to take the hardest tests stood to make the most money.

Each of the subjects completed the experiment three times — once after taking a placebo; once after taking methylphenidate, the generic version of Ritalin; and once after taking sulpiride, an antipsychotic that elevates dopamine levels when taken in low doses, is often used to treat symptoms of schizophrenia and major depressive disorder at much higher doses.

The researchers used a double-blind experiment design, where neither they nor the subjects knew which pill was being given to each subject.

Results

The results largely matched Westbrook’s computer-modeled predictions. Those with lower dopamine levels made decisions that indicated they were more focused on avoiding difficult cognitive work — in other words, they were more sensitive to the potential costs of completing the task.

Those with higher dopamine levels, on the other hand, made decisions that showed they were more sensitive to differences in the amount of money they could earn by choosing the harder test — in other words, they focused more on the potential benefits.

Westbrook says the latter held true whether the subjects’ dopamine levels were naturally higher or whether they had been artificially elevated by medications.

The results support the idea that, medication or no medication, dopamine typically acts as a motivation regulator for human brains, he says.

“The thoughts that pop into our head, and the amount of time we spend thinking about them, are regulated by this underlying cost-benefit decision-making system. Our brains have been honed to orient us toward the tasks that will have the greatest payoff and the least cost over time,”

Westbrook says.

Decisions

All of us have slightly different base levels of dopamine, says Frank. Those who have lower levels tend to be more risk-averse, because they spend more time focusing on the potential costs of completing a difficult task.

Those with higher levels tend to be more impulsive and active, because they focus more on the benefits.

No single dopamine level is inherently better than another, Frank says — an active, high-dopamine person may take fulfilling, happiness-boosting risks but may also be more prone to injury; a risk-averse, low-dopamine person may avoid injuries and disappointments but may also miss out on adventures. And dopamine levels don’t necessarily stay the same from one day to the next: They may decrease in response to danger or lack of sleep, and they may increase when people feel safe and supported.

In other words, Westbrook says, most people can trust natural dopamine levels to guide them toward the right decisions.

Of course, previous experiments have made it clear that many people with particularly low dopamine levels — including those diagnosed with depression or ADHD — can benefit from dopamine-boosting stimulant medications. But he says it’s never certain those medications will improve the lives of healthy people who who choose to use them recreationally.

Doing so could, in fact, lead some to make poorer decisions.

“When you raise dopamine in someone who already has a high dopamine level, every decision seems like it has benefit, which could distract from the real beneficial tasks,” Westbrook says. “People might behave in ways that aren’t consistent with their goals, like taking part in impulsive gambling or risky sex behaviors.”

The researchers hope their study helps future researchers and medical professionals better understand cognitive mechanisms, allowing them to identify connections between dopamine levels and disorders such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and schizophrenia.

“We want to know, what are the drivers of what changes cognitive ability and function? Our research is focused on carving nature at its joints, so to speak—disentangling neural and cognitive functions to understand people’s different thought processes and evaluate what’s best for their needs, whether it’s therapy or medication,”

Frank says.

[1] A. Westbrook, R. van den Bosch, J. I. Määttä, L. Hofmans, D. Papadopetraki, R. Cools, M. J. Frank. Dopamine promotes cognitive effort by biasing the benefits versus costs of cognitive work. Science 20 Mar 2020: Vol. 367, Issue 6484, pp. 1362-1366 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz5891

[2] Collins AG, Frank MJ. Opponent actor learning (OpAL): modeling interactive effects of striatal dopamine on reinforcement learning and choice incentive. Psychol Rev. 2014;121(3):337–366. doi:10.1037/a0037015


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