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Ritalin Poses Cognitive Risks to Those Without ADHD

Female rats observed to be especially susceptible to methylphenidate-related behavioral changes.
Published Online: Jun 06,2017
Laurie Toich, Assistant Editor
Ritalin (methylphenidate) is a central nervous system stimulant indicated to treat patients with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The drug increases the concentration of brain neurotransmitters that control reasoning and problem solving. Due to these effects, some individuals use the drug without a prescription to enhance studying.
 
Findings from a new study published by the Journal of Neural Transmission suggest that the use of Ritalin without a prescription can alter brain chemistry. These changes can affect risk-taking behavior, sleep disruption, and elicit other side effects.
 
"Although Ritalin's effectiveness in treating ADHD is well-documented, few studies have looked at the drug's effect on non-prescribed illicit use," said researcher Panayotis Thanos, PhD. "We wanted to explore the effects of this stimulant drug on the brain, behavior and development on non-ADHD subjects."
 
Previous studies have shown that 14% to 38% of college students use stimulant drugs without a prescription. This trend is also affecting high school students, whose brains are still developing. It is commonly believed that these drugs can enhance student performance on exams, making it appealing to this population.
 
In the new study, the authors assessed brain changes of adolescent rats who received consistent doses of Ritalin. Adolescence is a time of significant brain growth and the authors hypothesized that stimulants may change brain chemistry.
 
"We saw changes in the brain chemistry in ways that are known to have an impact on the reward pathway, locomotor activity, and other behaviors, as well as effects on body weight," Dr Thanos said. "These changes in brain chemistry were associated with serious concerns such as risk-taking behaviors, disruptions in the sleep/wake cycle and problematic weight loss, as well as resulting in increased activity and anti-anxiety and antidepressive effects."
 
These observed changes suggest that Ritalin can significantly alter the brain, which should deter nonprescription use of the drug.
 
Additional analyses found that female rats treated with Ritalin were more likely to exhibit behavioral changes compared with male rats, according to the study.
 
The authors hope that an increased understanding of the effects Ritalin has on the brain among patients without ADHD will lead to more knowledge about how the drug can change the brain and affect behavior.
 
These findings may also help researchers understand how Ritalin can negatively affect young patients without ADHD during development, according to the study.  
 
"Understanding more about the effects of methylphenidate is also important as people with ADHD show greater risk to be diagnosed with a drug dependency problem," Dr Thanos concluded. "In addition, this study highlights the potential long-range risks college students take in using Ritalin for a quick study boost."