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Ritalin may damage brain in some young people

According to a new study, the use of Ritalin among young adults can result in brain damage
According to a new study, the use of Ritalin among young adults can result in brain damage
Robin Wulffson, MD

Ritalin (methylphenidate) is commonly prescribed to children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, the stimulant is also taken by many individuals to improve alertness; often, these individuals do not have a prescription for the drug. According to a new study, the use of Ritalin among young adults can result in brain damage. The study was published on May 13 in the journal Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience by researchers at the University of Delaware Department of Psychology (Newark, Delaware) and Drexel University College of Medicine (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).

Ritalin is a type of drug known as a nootropic; these drugs can increase an individual’s attention span, memory, and ability to stay alert. Thus, they have become increasingly abused by students seeking an extra edge in their studies. According to a report from The Partnership at and the MetLife Foundation, approximately 1.3 million American teenagers reported having misused or abused methylphenidate without a prescription in the past month.

The new research has found that Ritalin may produce side-effects for individuals who are taking the drug without a prescription or those who have been misdiagnosed as having ADHD. The researchers are of the opinion that Ritalin is not uncommonly prescribed to children who do not actually have SDHD.

The investigators conducted a study to determine the effect of Ritalin on the normal brain. They assessed the effect of the on the brains of young, healthy rats. They focused on an area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, which is a region important for cognitive function. The prefrontal cortex contains two types of cells: pyramidal cells, or excitatory cells, and interneurons, or inhibitory cells. Some of the rats received just one dose of the drug, while others were treated with it for up to three weeks.

The researchers found that activity was decreased in the pyramidal cells; thus, the activity of the prefrontal cortex was slowed down, In addition, they found reduced communication between the two types of neurons as well as an alteration in plasticity in the prefrontal cortex. Plasticity is the brain’s ability to change and adapt to new incoming information. The effects were similar in rats treated with varying doses; however, the rodents treated for longer periods of time exhited slightly stronger effects.

Based on these observations, the investigators theorized that, in a normal, non-ADHD brain, Ritalin may decrease working memory and the ability for an individual to shift attention from one topic to another. An example of a difficulty in shifting attention is that you decide to go to the refrigerator to have a soft drink. When you open the refrigerator door, you do not remember what you went to the refrigerator for.

The aforementioned negative side-effects do not apply to patients with ADHD. Ritalin has very different, positive effects for these individuals. They tend to have an under-active prefrontal cortex; therefore, drugs such as Ritalin act as a stimulant to increase activity in that region. This improves attention span. In contrast, if individuals without ADHD take Ritalin, the drug may “overload” the brain, causing it to begin to shut down.

Take home message:

This study suggests that Ritalin, and similar medications, may harm the brains of healthy individuals and individuals misdiagnosed with ADHD. The diagnosis of ADHD is difficult; thus, increasing the risk of diagnosis. Before taking the drug, a thorough analysis should be conducted by an experienced physician. Physicians affiliated with Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center meet the facility’s high standards. Caffeine, which is a component of coffee, tea, and cola beverages, is a stimulant. It can benefit some ADHD patients.

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