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Can Stimulant Abuse Trigger “Brain Fog”?

Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Last updated:
Puya Yazdi
Medically reviewed by
Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Last updated:
Stimulant abuse brain fog

Students often abuse stimulants to improve their academic performance. However, stimulant use in people without ADHD can have negative health consequences. Might “brain fog” be one of them? Read on to learn what the studies found.

Stimulant Abuse Prevalence

Stimulants are commonly used illicitly by students without ADHD to reduce fatigue and improve their academic performance. In 3 surveys of over 3500 college students, 34-43% reported using them. They tended to regard stimulant misuse as harmless and morally acceptable [1, 2, 3].

Side Effects of Stimulant Abuse

People misusing stimulants are more likely to exceed the recommended dose. This may cause [4+, 5, 6, 7, 8]:

  • Psychosis
  • Seizures
  • Spasms or twitching
  • Heart and circulation problems
Research suggests students often abuse stimulants to improve their academic performance and are likely to exceed the recommended dosage.

Withdrawal Syndrome & “Brain Fog”

Additionally, people who abuse stimulants may suffer from withdrawal syndrome with [9+, 10]:

A further risk is that students misusing stimulants are more likely to abuse other drugs, as seen in 3 studies on over 47k students. These drugs may trigger “brain fog” and worsen general cognitive performance [11, 12, 13].

Students who misuse stimulants may suffer from withdrawal syndrome. Studies suggest that they are also more likely to abuse other drugs, which may lead to “brain fog.”

Cognitive Effects of High Stimulant Doses

Animal Studies

Concerning the cognitive effects of high stimulant doses, there are only animal studies.

High Ritalin and amphetamine doses caused oxidative damage, changes in brain cell morphology, and impaired transmission. The effects were more severe in very young, old, or stressed animals. Single doses were more toxic, while repeated doses or previous exposure to these drugs had milder effects [14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25].

Clinical data about the cognitive effects of high stimulant doses are lacking. Animal studies suggest that high doses can be extremely toxic to the brain.

Limitations and Caveats

Very few studies found cognitive impairment from normal stimulant doses. Because they all used healthy volunteers, more research is needed before drawing any conclusions about whether these findings hold for people with underlying psychiatric problems.

Although animal studies show that high doses of ADHD medication may damage the brain, no studies have investigated this possibility in humans.


Students who abuse stimulants to improve their academic performance seriously risk harming their health. Though stimulants are considered safe when taken by prescription and under medical guidance, their illicit use can be dangerous.

Studies suggest that students who abuse stimulants are likely to exceed recommended doses, which increases the chance of side effects. They may also experience withdrawal syndrome with fatigue, depression, and anxiety.

Lastly, research shows that people who abuse stimulants are more likely to abuse other drugs, which can ultimately impair cognition and lead to “brain fog.”

Learn More

About the Author

Carlos Tello

Carlos Tello

PhD (Molecular Biology)
Carlos received his PhD and MS from the Universidad de Sevilla.
Carlos spent 9 years in the laboratory investigating mineral transport in plants. He then started working as a freelancer, mainly in science writing, editing, and consulting. Carlos is passionate about learning the mechanisms behind biological processes and communicating science to both academic and non-academic audiences. He strongly believes that scientific literacy is crucial to maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid falling for scams.


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