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Cognitive Enhancers - Ritalin

Drugs that have been perceived to improve cognitive enhancement are colloquially known as study drugs, as these drugs are commonly known to be used by students to improve cognitive performance before an exam or a test, although some students use these drugs all-year round to improve performance. Athletes, CEO’s, entrepreneurs, academics, freelance writers and government employees have all been known to use study drugs or cognitive enhancing drugs in one manner or another.

The most well known drugs used for cognitive enhancement are Modafinil, Piracetam and Ritalin. This series of articles will discuss each in turn from a multiple of sources, anecdotal and from scientific studies, and come to a conclusion of when and how you should be taking these drugs if you have already brought them and intend to consume them.

This article will define cognitive enhancement simply as anything that increases the functioning or operation of any aspect of human cognition.

Ritalin (Methylphenidate)

Ritalin is most commonly used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD), a neurodevelopmental disorder which is characterised by difficulty in controlling behaviour, a lack of concentration, with excessive activity by the subject for their relevant age group. ADHD is supposed to be caused by a lack of dopamine and noradrenaline neurotransmitter function in the pre-frontal cortex, the area crucial for inhibiting behaviour, planning, problem solving and organising. (Arnsten and Li)

Ritalin works by increasing arousal. Arousal is the physiological state of being alert and attentive. As Ritalin increases arousal we can clearly expect it to increase short-term cognitive abilities such as attention and working memory, since there is an established relationship between inverted U arousal and cognition in complex and simple problems. This was first hypothesised by Yerkes and Dodson in 1908 and generally accepted today in Psychological Theory. But as Gary Lynch aptly asks “Whether Ritalin does in fact produce such effects in the absence of disturbances to other aspects of cognition.” (Lynch) The question Lynch poses is the following one: does the improvement in arousal, which leads to an improvement in attention and working memory, include any disturbances in cognition, such as long-term memory, integrated cognition or spatial reasoning amongst others?

How does Ritalin Work?

Ritalin works by increasing the amount of dopamine and noradrenaline neurotransmitter available at the synapses by inhibiting reuptake (Volkow), similar to the mechanism of how anti-depressants work by blocking the reuptake of serotonin. Ritalin works on diffuse ascending biogenic amine systems (such as acetylcholine, dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine neurotransmitters) that begin in a small number of cells in the lower brain that generate into branching projections into the forebrain. In the case of Ritalin, having an increased supply of dopamine and noradrenaline at the synapses will entail that more dopamine and noradrenaline is received in human forebrain, particularly the frontal and parietal regions, which fits the general model of the inverted U arousal hypothesis.  (Lynch)

Before assessing whether taking Ritalin is applicable for cognitive enhancement, we have to note that most of the studies and experiments that have been designed for subjects that either have attention hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or other psychiatric disorders, rather than being designed for healthy controls. This is an important point that should be especially kept in mind when discussing the effects on Ritalin on improving cognition; since the amount of studies on Ritalin and the enhancement of human cognition are limited there is a tendency on a single failed test –for whatever reason - in a particular area of study that may have had a few successful studies to be immediately cast in doubt. Since there are so few tests on healthy controls this means that there is a smaller margin for error at the current time in these studies for Ritalin to be seen as applicable for cognitive enhancement since every failed test will count for a larger percentage.

Does Ritalin Work?

Firstly, some anecdotal evidence. I distinctly remember a brief vignette told to me by my friend that was a former intelligence analyst for the police. When he was a student he had some looming essay deadlines approaching so he decided to look for a chemical cognitive advantage in the form of Ritalin. According to the former intelligence analyst when he took Ritalin it was as if the focus of his perception closed in on its target like prey and he was able to entirely focus on his work and any work related thoughts. The rest of his perceptual field and the other hazy distracting thoughts that typically interrupted his work flow were siphoned off to an abyss. Taking the drug Ritalin for his concentration was similar for his conscious field to when a movie is about to start at the cinema when the curtains fall and the screen significantly narrows. For hours he was able to hammer away at his essay forgetting the outside world, its distractions, its temptations and its shiny desires goading you to satisfy them. However, after this significant portion of time lapsed (4-5hours) the comedown, he said, was unbelievably awful – he couldn’t focus on any single thought for a perceptible length of time or grasp the thread of complex thoughts or the meandering of a basic conversation. Antithetical to the effects of the drug when potent and active, at the comedown stage, the filter on human perception had been unrestrained: now hundreds of thoughts received the same attention and priority as each other, discrimination between them became physically impossible; so did focusing on the external world, now the poignant beauty of minutiae captured his attention with the similar care as major existential risks in his environment.

There have been studies, however, that shows Ritalin has been effective in producing cognitive enhancement although the enhancement is typically limited to the scenario at hand and affects other aspects of cognition which entails that the compounds benefits come at too high a cost.

The evidence shows Ritalin is effective in certain contexts. Early evidence has shown that Ritalin’s increased attention is most beneficial when it comes to simple tasks rather than more difficult tasks that require intense and singular concentration (Advokat). Presumably because activities where intense concentration is already deployed to complete a task, the increased arousal produced by intaking Ritalin has already been obtained naturally without the compound. In studies that focused on whether Ritalin can improve spatial working memory in healthy humans, the results suggested that taking Ritalin only improved spatial working memory for those subjects that had a low baseline score but otherwise there was no significant or noticeable improvement in this type of memory (Mehta)

However, the long-term use of Ritalin is doubtful as many studies have indicated that Ritalin actually inhibits long-term memory consolidation. High concentrations of Ritalin were found to be an impairment to long-term memory on tests carried out 24 hours afterwards. Whilst lower concentrations had little to no evidence on positive memory formation on these tests. On the other hand, other tests that tried similar experiments found that there were no long-term memory benefits to taking Ritalin. In spatial working memory, Ritalin was found to impair memory after repeated tasks and in a complex video game that requires evolving strategies for peak performance it was found to inhibit natural improvements in scores after repeated measures.

Based on this, albeit limited, evidence it seems rather strange that Ritalin is used within schools for students that suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) since it appears – at least in some contexts – to impair long-term memory consolidation. Ritalin will get the students to focus on their work but in some circumstances it may impair their ability to learn, this seems counterproductive within a learning environment and no doubt should be investigated further.

How should Ritalin be viewed?

The effects of Ritalin on healthy human subjects can be summed up in three key points. (1) Ritalin’s primary effect is to increase arousal in the subject and the consequence of this is the improvement in the cognitive functions of attention and working memory, among others. (2)  The effects produced by Ritalin are at peak performance at low baseline difficulty tasks or when the subjects taking the task are at low baseline level e.g. the subject cannot concentrate because they are tired. (3) Taking Ritalin inhibits long-term memory consolidation, although to which extent is unknown at the current time.

So, if you’re wondering whether you should take Ritalin in order to boost cognitive enhancement, then understanding the contextual factors at hand and what you want to get out of your current tasks is always the key. If the task at hand is extremely complicated with a pressing deadline and you want to retain as much information as possible to do the task again in the future, then it would be wise not to take the compound. In this case the effects of Ritalin would be minimised as you would likely already be in a state of increased arousal and your long-term memory will be affected in relation to this task.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling lethargic or you feel a pressing need to do a task but do not feel the urgency arising within yourself to complete it, then Ritalin may just be the boost you need to get you in the right state of mind to complete the task.


Advokat, Claire. "What Are The Cognitive Effects Of Stimulant Medications? Emphasis On Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)". Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 34.8 (2010): 1256-1266. Web.

Arnsten AF, Li BM (2005). "Neurobiology of Executive Functions: Catecholamine Influences on Prefrontal Cortical Functions". Biological Psychiatry 57 (11): 1377–84.

Lynch, G., Palmer, L. C., & Gall, C. M. (2011). The Likelihood of Cognitive Enhancement. Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior, 99(2), 116–129. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbb.2010.12.024

Mehta MA, Owen AM, Sahakian BJ, Mavaddat N, Pickard JD, Robbins TW, Methylphenidate enhances working memory by modulating discrete frontal and parietal lobe regions in the human brain. J Neurosci 2000; 20 RC65

Volkow, Nora D. et al. "Imaging The Effects Of Methylphenidate On Brain Dopamine: New Model On Its Therapeutic Actions For Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder". Biological Psychiatry 57.11 (2005): 1410-1415. Web.