Methylphenidate alters selective attention by amplifying salience

Niels ter Huurne, Ole Jensen, Sean James Fallon, Martine van Schouwenburg, Marieke van der Schaaf, Jan Buitelaar, Roshan Cools

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


RATIONALE: Methylphenidate, the most common treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is increasingly used by healthy individuals as a "smart drug" to enhance cognitive abilities like attention. A key feature of (selective) attention is the ability to ignore irrelevant but salient information in the environment (distractors). Although crucial for cognitive performance, until now, it is not known how the use of methylphenidate affects resistance to attentional capture by distractors.

OBJECTIVES: The present study aims to clarify how methylphenidate affects distractor suppression in healthy individuals.

METHODS: The effect of methylphenidate (20 mg) on distractor suppression was assessed in healthy subjects (N = 20), in a within-subject double-blind placebo-controlled crossover design. We used a visuospatial attention task with target faces flanked by strong (faces) or weak distractors (scrambled faces).

RESULTS: Methylphenidate increased accuracy on trials that required gender identification of target face stimuli (methylphenidate 88.9 ± 1.4 [mean ± SEM], placebo 86.0 ± 1.2 %; p = .003), suggesting increased processing of the faces. At the same time, however, methylphenidate increased reaction time when the target face was flanked by a face distractor relative to a scrambled face distractor (methylphenidate 34.9 ± 3.73, placebo 26.7 ± 2.84 ms; p = .027), suggesting enhanced attentional capture by distractors with task-relevant features.

CONCLUSIONS: We conclude that methylphenidate amplifies salience of task-relevant information at the level of the stimulus category. This leads to enhanced processing of the target (faces) but also increased attentional capture by distractors drawn from the same category as the target.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4317-4323
Number of pages7
Issue number23
Early online date9 Sept 2015
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2015


  • ADHD
  • Attention
  • cognitive enhancer
  • distractor
  • dopamine
  • resistance
  • salience
  • smart drug
  • Methylphenidate
  • suppression


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