Ritalin increases motivation, which improves your performance on tasks

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A recent study dispels certain myths regarding the recreational use of stimulants like Ritalin by revealing how they function in the brain. The journal Science published the collaboration between Radboudumc and Brown University (USA).It’s common knowledge that Ritalin and Adderall aid with concentration. And in a way, they do. However, as this study demonstrates, they also somewhat increase your cognitive motivation. You feel that completing a difficult endeavor will benefit you more than it will cost you. Any modifications to real ability have no bearing on this effect.

Brain containing ritalin

Ritalin acts by enhancing dopamine release in the striatum, an important brain area linked to motivation, behavior, and thought processes. Higher amounts of dopamine, a chemical that carries impulses between nerve cells, have been linked to increased motivation for physically demanding tasks in both humans and mice, according to earlier research. It was unclear if this held true for cognitive activities as well: can stimulants boost motivation or expand your capacity for action?

From test to observation

The Radboudumc team, under the direction of professor Roshan Cools, a specialist in Cognitive Neuropsychiatry and Stress-Related Disorders, conceived the study when he saw something remarkable regarding the effectiveness of medications that stimulate dopamine receptors, such as those used to treat Parkinson’s disease. As it turned out, the effects of those medications differed significantly between people and could be anticipated based on baseline dopamine levels. The goal of the study was to see whether methylphenidate, the primary ingredient in several ADHD medications like Ritalin and Concerta, also worked in the same way for healthy individuals looking to improve performance and cognition.Cools from the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behavior used a model created at Brown University, which suggests that dopamine alters the way the striatum focuses the rewards rather than the costs of performing physical and mental acts, to conduct an experiment. A group of healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 43 were the subjects of her and her team’s study. After using a PET scan to evaluate each participant’s typical dopamine levels, they asked them to participate in a series of cognitively demanding tasks. While the difficulty of each assignment varied, the people who took on the most difficult tasks stood to gain the greatest financial rewards.

The subjects took part in the trial three times:

 once following the administration of a placebo, once following the administration of methylphenidate, and once following the administration of sulpiride, an antipsychotic medication that, at higher dosages, is used to treat major depressive disorder and schizophrenia and is thought to raise dopamine levels.

Benefit versus cost

The experiment’s outcomes agreed with the mathematical model. Decisions made by those with lower dopamine levels indicate that they were more concerned with avoiding challenging cognitive tasks—that is, they were more cognizant of the expenses associated with finishing the activity. Conversely, the dopamine-high group behaved more perceptively, focusing more on the possible rewards of finishing the job and less on the variations in the amount of money they could earn. Whether the increased dopamine levels were caused by the medications or by nature was irrelevant.By better understanding cognitive pathways, the researchers want to help future academics and medical experts find links between dopamine levels and diseases like anxiety, depression, ADHD, and schizophrenia.

Context: dopamine and decision-making

Although each person has a somewhat varied baseline dopamine level, no dopamine level—high or low—is intrinsically superior to another. A risk-averse, low-dopamine person may avoid disappointments and injuries but may also lose out on experiences; an energetic, high-dopamine person may take rewarding, happiness-boosting risks but may also be more prone to harm. Furthermore, dopamine levels don’t always remain constant; they might rise when people feel comfortable and supported or fall in response to threat or sleep deprivation. 

Stated differently, most people can rely on their natural dopamine levels to steer them in the direction of good choices. Naturally, prior research has demonstrated that many individuals with exceptionally low dopamine levels, such as those with depression or ADHD, can benefit from drugs that increase dopamine. However, there is never a guarantee that persons who choose to use those drugs recreationally and are in good health will live better lives. Raising dopamine levels in people who already have high levels can actually cause some people to make worse decisions because every choice they make looks beneficial, which can divert attention from the truly useful tasks.

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