Dexedrine and Other Stimulants Cannot Undo Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine) is typically prescribed to children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This medication stimulates parts of the brain necessary for attention and impulse control. Narcolepsy, a condition that causes intense drowsiness during waking hours, is also treated with Dexedrine or other stimulant medications. However, Dexedrine poses a risk of abuse and overdose, especially when larger or more frequent doses are taken. In some applications, such as military operations, this medication has been used as a means to prolong wakefulness. The dangers associated with this kind of use, however, are worth considering.

A study at McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School, highlighted the ways in which stimulants relieve some but not all effects of sleep deprivation. The study involved healthy adult subjects with no history of substance abuse. Subjects were presented with the “Iowa Gambling Test,” a psychological test of decision-making, after a full night of sleep. This provided the baseline measurement for comparison with other testing conditions. Later, testing was administered after 23 and 46 hours of wakefulness. The subjects were divided into groups for this phase of the experiment. One group received Dexedrine, another received Provigil (modafinil), a narcolepsy medication, and a third received caffeine. In terms of feelings of alertness and attention, most subjects reported improvement soon after delivery of medication. Dexedrine produced more pronounced alertness and perceptual “readiness” than either Provigil or caffeine. However, the results of the gambling test told a different story.

All subjects performed much more poorly on the test compared to baseline scores. This indicates that stimulants only counteract some of the effects of sleep deprivation. Certain decision-making processes, particularly those involving so-called emotional decision-making, remain highly impaired after too many hours of wakefulness. None of the stimulants tested could be said to work “better” at restoring the ability to make sound decisions. These results should serve as a caution to military planners or industries where prolonged wakefulness is common. Even powerful stimulants like Dexedrine are only partially effective in maintaining alertness and judgment. The results of poor decisions can have tragic and unforeseen consequences. Furthermore, the possibility of adverse effects and abuse is quite high with prescription stimulant medication.

References

  1. PubMed Health [Internet]. (n.d.). Bethesda (MD): National Library of Medicine. Dextroamphetamine. Retrieved May 2, 2012, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0000310/
  2. Killgore, W. D., Grugle, N. L. Balkin, T. J. (2012). Gambling when sleep deprived: don’t bet on stimulants. Chronobiology International, 29(1), 43-54.

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