Introduction: Theory of visual attention (TVA; Bundesen 1990) whole report tasks allow the independent measurement of visual perceptual processing speed and visual short-term memory (vSTM) storage capacity, unconfounded by motor speed. This study investigates how cognitive enhancing effects of psychostimulants depend on baseline performance and individual plasma levels.
Materials and methods: Eighteen healthy volunteers (aged 20-35 years) received single oral doses of either 40 mg methylphenidate, 400 mg modafinil or placebo in a counterbalanced, double-blind crossover design. A whole report of visually presented letter arrays was performed 2.5-3.5 h after drug administration, and blood samples for plasma level analysis were taken.
Results: Methylphenidate and modafinil both enhanced perceptual processing speed in participants with low baseline (placebo) performance. These improvements correlated with subjective alertness. Furthermore, we observed differential plasma level-dependent effects of methylphenidate in lower and higher performing participants: higher plasma levels led to a greater improvement in low-performing participants and to decreasing improvement in high-performing participants. Modafinil enhanced visual short-term memory storage capacity in low-performing participants.
Conclusions: This is the first pharmacological investigation demonstrating the usefulness of a TVA task for high-resolution and repeated cognitive parameter estimation after cognitive-enhancing medication. Our results confirm previous findings of attentional capacity improvements in low performers and extend the baseline dependency model to methylphenidate. Plasma level-dependent effects of psychostimulants can be modelled on an inverted U-shaped dose-response relationship, which is highly relevant to predict cognitive enhancing and detrimental effects of psychostimulants in patients with cognitive deficits (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and healthy volunteers (e.g., self-medicating academics).