How Ritalin Affects the Brain

by Susan Willets on September 24, 2008

Chemical Reactions

Ritalin, or methylphenidate, is a stimulant drug that affects the central nervous system. It is used to treat a variety of disorders including ADHD, ADD, narcolepsy and chronic fatigue syndrome. Patients who use methylphenidate tend to become more focused, alert, aware and able to control a plethora of symptoms associated with these disorders.

Ritalin belongs to a class of mind-altering drugs known as psychotropic drugs, or amphetamines. Ritalin increases the extra-cellular dopamine levels in the brain causing the user to feel more aware of his or her environment and consequently, the task at hand. At the same time, Ritalin lessens other cells that function in the brain’s “background”, causing even more attention to be placed upon necessary tasks. It achieves this by activating the part of the brain stem and the frontal lobe that either produces or uses dopamine for various functions.

Negative Side Effects on the Brain

For many years, it was believed that Ritalin only had short-term effects on the user as there was no solid research confirming the long-term effects. However, many scientists are beginning to take a closer look at the effects of this drug and if there are any potential concerns or long-term risks. Researchers at the University of Buffalo have conducted an experiment that found that extended Ritalin use affects some functions of the brain. The study was conducted using rats that received Ritalin doses equivalent to the ration of what a child would receive who was using Ritalin for therapeutic purposes.

It was found that the brains of the rats were altered over time, leading to additional questions. While there is still much more research necessary, this opens the door to the fact that there may be effects on cell function that go beyond the short-term effects that we see through the child’s behavior. Continuing research will need to be conducted to determine if those effects are damaging.

Positive Side Effects on the Brain

Some people who argue that since any stimulant of a child or teenager’s brain is undesirable, Ritalin has few if any positive effects. However, it is undeniable that children who successfully use Ritalin show improved academic performance, increased social skills, an ability to focus in and outside of school and an overall improved sense of well-being. Children are sometimes taken off of Ritalin on weekends and during the summer months in order to promote a healthy growth rate.

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