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Young people who misuse prescription stimulants to increase their attention span and memory may be risking long-term impairment to brain function, a new study suggests.

Researchers reviewed studies on potential lasting side effects of misusing “study drugs” such as Ritalin or Proviigil. They found any short-term boosts in mental performance were offset by long-term decrease in brain plasticity, needed for planning ahead, switching between tasks and being flexible in behavior.

One of the drugs studied was methylphenidate, sold under the brand names Ritalin and Concerta. The drug is prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The researchers also looked at modafinil (Proviigil), used to treat sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, Time reports. In addition, they surveyed the research on an emerging class of drugs called ampakines, being studied by the U.S. military to see if it will increase alertness in soldiers.

“What’s safe for adults is not necessarily safe for kids,” lead researcher Kimberly Urban of the University of Delaware said in a news release. “The human brain continues to develop until our late twenties or early thirties. Young people are especially prone to abuse smart drugs, but also more vulnerable to any side-effects. We simply don’t know enough about the long-term effects of these drugs on the developing brain to conclude they are safe.”

The findings are published in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience.

Last year, the Partnership Attitude Tracking Study found one in eight teens (13 percent) reports that they have taken the stimulants Ritalin or Adderall when it was not prescribed for them, at least once in their lifetime.


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