I remember when a lot of jokes were made about whether ADHD is a “real” disorder. Over the last few decades, it’s become clear that ADHD is just as real as any other type of condition affecting brain function. Some individuals with ADHD are higher functioning than others, but there’s no doubt that chronic difficulty concentrating has its origins in neurobiology.
Vyvanse and Adderall are the most commonly prescribed stimulants for the treatment of ADHD. In this article, I want to discuss what these drugs do, and how they’re reshaping American culture.
In the last fifty years, we’ve witnessed a shift away from blue collar work toward white collar jobs. This has occurred as blue collar jobs become increasingly automated, and the demand for intellectual work has increases.
This exodus toward intellectual work has made academics extremely competitive. And all this competitive pressure may be increasing the rate at which physicians are prescribing psychostimulants.
FIfty years ago, if you had ADHD it might’ve gone unnoticed if you weren’t required to do anything that required sustained concentration for hours. But not so in today’s employment environment.
Psychostimulants: What Are They?
Psychostimulants are drugs that enter the brain and promote the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Dopamine is linked to reward, sexuality and muscular tone. You get a dopamine squirt every time you get a new email, defeat an opponent in a video game, get a compliment from your boss, or even turn the page of the book you’re reading. It’s the neurochemical that underpins motivation, because it’s what makes life itself rewarding.
By increasing the activity of dopamine, mundane tasks become more salient – they seem more urgent.
But here’s the problem: whether or not you have ADHD, you’ll find psychostimulants motivating. Some people need the extra jolt, but others are using it as a crutch. Maybe they haven’t been sleeping as much as they should – or their hours at work are too long. They might try to cheat their biology with a stimulant – even if they don’t have ADHD.
This can have some serious health consequences. Amphetamines are probably neurotoxic in high doses. They also increase blood pressure, and make the brain work harder than it needs to in some situations.
You probably didn’t know this – but two famous people who used amphetamines are John F Kennedy and Hitler.
As work and academic environments become increasingly pressurized, I hope Americans will collectively have the foresight to strongly discourage the use of stimulants in patients without ADHD. There’s a fair amount of evidence that these drugs facilitate brain development in individuals with ADHD, but harm the brains of healthy subjects.