Can Adderall Help Patients Suffering from Chemobrain?

The use of stimulants to help cope with the effects of chemobrain

When Linda W. finished her last round of chemotherapy to treat breast cancer, she looked forward to having a normal, cancer-free life again. About a year after completing treatment, Linda began to experience problems with her memory and concentration. The 51-year-old cancer survivor compared the difficulties with a sudden onset of a learning disability. "It would take me twice as long to do simple tasks, like balance my checkbook or file papers at work. I would read something and have to reread the information several times because I couldn't remember what I read."

Linda's symptoms were consistent to what is commonly known as chemobrain, a cognitive decline or dysfunction experienced by many cancer patients after being treated with chemotherapy. The name "chemobrain" can be misleading, however. Several studies have shown a cognitive decline after cancer treatment, however, many experts are wary of pinning chemotherapy as the sole culprit. It remains highly debated in the professional medical community, as there are varied theories about "chemobrain" and its possible cause.

Adderall pills
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More research is certainly needed to better understand how cancer and cancer treatment affects the brain. Today, we know that some patients have suffered from cognitive dysfunction after being treated with chemotherapy, but have little concrete evidence concerning its causes. Prior to current research findings, healthcare providers often dismissed cognitive symptoms like memory loss, difficulties with concentration, and loss of focus as emotional stress caused by having cancer and an effect of the normal aging process. Patients were left without answers and help for the cognitive symptoms they were experiencing. Today, patients still have few answers, but some healthcare providers are addressing their symptoms by recommending therapy and pharmaceutical drugs.

No Approved Treatments

There is no approved or specific treatment for cognitive dysfunction following cancer treatment, some healthcare providers have been prescribing stimulants used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to help patients increase their focus and concentration. Linda was prescribed a low dose of Adderall (amphetamine, dextroamphetamine mixed salts) and the medication has helped her with focus and concentration. "I knew when I forgot to pick up my grandson my baseball practice, I couldn't go on like that anymore. My doctor prescribed me Adderall and it has helped me a lot. I feel as close to my old self as I possibly can. I still struggle every once in a while, but who doesn't?".

The symptoms of chemobrain, or cognitive deficit, are similar to the symptoms of ADHD. Difficulty concentrating, loss of focus, and having trouble with memory is also observed in children and adults with ADHD. Stimulants work by altering the levels of the neurotransmitters in the brain, mainly dopamine and norepinephrine. It is important to note that stimulants will not cure chemobrain, or even attention deficit disorder. They simply relieve the symptoms of the condition. It is much like someone taking OTC cold medicine when they a cold. The cold medicine relieves the symptoms, like coughing and runny nose, but does not cure the cold.

While chemobrain is becoming more widely accepted and recognized in the medical community, some healthcare providers still do not acknowledge its existence and may be unwilling or reluctant to prescribe medicine, like stimulants, to relieve symptoms. Some healthcare providers may also recognize cognitive decline after treatment, but unwilling to prescribe stimulants, as they are a controlled substance.

Side Effects of Stimulants

There are several stimulants that can be prescribed by your healthcare provider. Adderall, Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine dimesylate), Concerta (methylphenidate HCl), Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine sulfate), and Ritalin methylphenidate hydrochloride are the most commonly prescribed stimulants. Each stimulant has unique side effects, but in general, stimulants can cause headaches, decreased appetite, weight loss, upset stomach, insomnia, and nervousness. Many of these side effects go away with continued usage, however. Most healthy people tolerate stimulants well at the appropriate dose, but you may have to try a few different stimulants before you find one that works the best for you.

Who Should Not Take Stimulants

Stimulants are not safe for everyone to take. If you suffer from the following conditions, you should not take stimulants:

  • moderate to severe anxiety; anxiety, nervousness, and agitation can increase with the use of these medications.
  • glaucoma
  • overactive thyroid
  • untreated or uncontrolled high blood pressure
  • history of psychosis or psychotic events or episodes
  • coronary artery disease

People who use MAOIs should not be prescribed stimulants, as well.

Some drugs may carry warnings for people with other conditions not listed here. It is important that you provide a thorough personal/family medical history to your healthcare provider to determine if stimulants are safe for you.

Are Stimulants Addictive?

Stimulants can be habit forming and addictive. If you are prescribed stimulants, do not suddenly stop taking them without your healthcare provider's approval. Discontinuing your medication suddenly can result in withdrawal symptoms. To ease withdrawal symptoms, your healthcare provider will likely taper your dosage slowly to wean you off of your medication.

It is advised that those with a history or drug or alcohol abuse or an addictive personality type, avoid taking stimulant medications. These drugs are considered to be a controlled substance as they can be addictive and some types can be abused.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mandelblatt JS, Hurria A, McDonald BC, et al. Cognitive effects of cancer and its treatments at the intersection of aging: what do we know; what do we need to know?. Semin Oncol. 2013;40(6):709–725. doi: 10.1053/j.seminoncol.2013.09.006

  2. Pendergrass JC, Targum SD, Harrison JE. Cognitive Impairment Associated with Cancer: A Brief Review. Innov Clin Neurosci. 2018;15(1-2):36–44. PMID: 29497579

  3. US Food & Drug Administration, Drug Safety Information for Consumers, VYVANSE ® (lisdexamfetamine dimesylate)

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Adderall and Adderall XR (amphetamines)Information. Postmarket Drug Safety Information for Patients and Providers

By Lisa Fayed
Lisa Fayed is a freelance medical writer, cancer educator and patient advocate.