New research describes effects of Ritalin on the brain

by mcardinal

Lauren Dempsey, MS in Biomedicine and Law, RN, FISM News 


The University of Pittsburgh researchers have conducted a new study that provides a deeper look at how the brain is affected by Ritalin, or methylphenidate. Neuroscientists at the university evaluated brain activity in animals when on Ritalin, focusing on how the medication works as well as possible new uses for this commonly prescribed drug. 

Ritalin is a stimulant that has a similar structure to amphetamine.  It was first approved by the FDA in the 1950s and is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The drug works by increasing the chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain and making them work more effectively to help reduce symptoms of ADHD. These chemicals are responsible for feelings of pleasure, body movement, and attention span. However, as with most other drugs, Ritalin it is not without side effects and can cause poor appetite, disrupted sleep, and fluctuations in weight. 

Pitt’s researchers published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April. They had discovered that when methylphenidate was administered to rhesus monkeys there was “improved visual performance at only their attended spatial location.” This improvement occurred when the neuron activity shifted.

Not all of the study results yielded new information. The monkeys took an alternating regimen of Ritalin and a placebo for two weeks. When the monkeys took the drug, they had better attention spans, spending more time on tasks as well as having better performance, but only when the task happened with something that they were already paying attention to. 

However, it did provide more insight into how neurons behave in the brain and how medication can impact this activity. Marlene Cohen, senior study author and professor of neuroscience at the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, said, “We really know very little about what these drugs do to the activity of groups of neurons, but basic scientists like us have been investigating what groups of neurons can tell us about behavior and cognition, and so understanding what these drugs do to groups of neurons can maybe give us hints about other things that they would be useful for.”

A greater understanding of how Ritalin works in the brain may help lead to the treatment of other disorders. Currently the medication is usually prescribed in children. However, it has also been used off-label to treat major depressive disorder and has been used in cancer patients. 

According to the CDC, one out of every eleven children in the United States are prescribed stimulants like Ritalin to improve attention and focus, and it is estimated that 6.1 million children in the U.S. have an ADHD diagnosis. This is about 9.4% of American children, including 388,000 children aged 2 to 5, 2.4 million aged 6 to 11, and 3.3 million aged 12 to 17. 

The CDC also revealed that 18% of children aged 2 to 5 are on medication and 60% are receiving behavioral treatment, 69% of children aged 6 to 11 are on medication and 51% are receiving behavioral treatment, and 62% of children aged 12 to 17 are on medication with 42% receiving behavioral treatment. It is also estimated that 1 in 5 adults uses the medication. 

There is still a lot that is unknown about ADHD. Some experts believe that it is related to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. However, the cause and associated risk factors are mostly unknown. Pitt’s research will help to better understand the potential uses of Ritalin and the impact it has on brain activity and behavior.