Ritalin use: Does It Alter a Child's Brain?

Douglas Cowan Psy.D. MFT's picture
Share it now

Ritalin and ADHD Children : Long Term Effects?

"Ritalin Use for ADHD : Does It Alter a Child's Brain?" This was a common headline in the media regarding another of the really interesting studies published this summer. The actual name of the study was: “Methylphenidate Administration to Juvenile Rats Alters Brain Areas Involved in Cognition, Motivated Behaviors, Appetite, and Stress.”

The study attempted to answer questions regarding the consequences of using Ritalin (Methylphenidate) long-term in ADHD children. The researcher’s had concerns that no one really knows what long-term use of Ritalin does to a child’s brain, so they studied the impact of Ritalin use on 16 areas of the brains of young male rats, hoping to find clues. The rats were first given Ritalin at 7 days old. Some rats were studies after 35 days of use (rat adolescence), while others were studied after 135 days (rat adulthood).

Changes were found in the rats who were given Ritalin, compared to the control group that was never given Ritalin. “The changes we saw in the brains of treated rats occurred in areas strongly linked to higher executive functioning, addiction and appetite, social relationships and stress. These alterations gradually disappeared over time once the rats no longer received the drug,” according to the study’s lead researcher Dr. Teresa Milner from the Weill Cornell Medical College.

The study revealed Ritalin-associated changes in four main areas:

  • First, there were alterations in brain chemicals such as catecholamines and norepinephrine in the rats’ prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for higher executive functions and decision-making;
  • Second, there were also significant changes in catecholamine function in the hippocampus, a center for memory and learning;
  • Third, there were alterations in the stratium, a key region for motor function;
  • Fourth, there were changes in the hypothalamus, a center for appetite, addictive behaviors, and vigilance.

The rats given the Ritalin also lost weight, a common side-effect to stimulants.

Dr. Milner reported that it is too early to say whether the changes found in the Ritalin-exposed brains would be of benefit or harm to humans, but warned that physicians need to be very careful in their diagnosis of ADHD before prescribing Ritalin to children because the brain changes from the use of Ritalin might be helpful in “battling the disorder” but harmful if given to a child with a healthy brain.

One good indication was that three months after discontinuing the Ritalin treatment the rats’ neurochemistry largely had resolved back to the condition they would have been in had they never received treatment – normal rat brains.

This finding gave the research team hope that short-term Ritalin use might be OK, but that Ritalin use should be replaced by other treatment options for the long-term.

Dr. Milner said, “We are concerned about longer-term use (of Ritalin). It’s unclear from this study whether Ritalin might leave more lasting changes, especially if treatment were to continue for years. In this case it is possible that chronic use (long-term) of (Ritalin) would alter brain chemistry and behavior well into adulthood.”

The study was funded by the U. S. National Institutes of Health. Weill Cornell Medical College is Cornell University’s Medical School located in New York City.

Keywords: Ritalin, ADHD, ADHD in Children, Long Term Use of Ritalin for ADHD

Share it now