Methylphenidate, sold under the trade name Ritalin, is a popular stimulant medication prescribed for ADHD. According to a CDC survey by 2011, an estimated 6.4 million American children ages 4 to 17 had been diagnosed with ADHD, with 1 in 5 high school boys. Among children diagnosed with ADHD, 3.5 million were taking medication.
America Consumes 85% of World’s Methylphenidate
According to a United Nations report, the U.S. produces and consumes about 85 percent of the world’s supply of methylphenidate. The United Nations International Narcotics Control Board expressed concern about the sharp increase in the use of methylphenidate in the United States, and how non-governmental organizations and parental associations have actively lobbied for the medical use of methylphenidate for children with ADHD.
Insufficient Data to Judge Long-Term Effects
What is astonishing is that we really don’t know the long-term effects of taking methylphenidate on children. A 2016 review of scientific literature led by researchers at the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Munich, concluded: “Despite countless publications and extensive administration, especially to children, we have insufficient data to judge the long-term effects and risks of taking methylphenidate.”
In November 2015, a Cochrane review was published with the aim of assessing the beneficial and harmful effects of methylphenidate for children and adolescents with ADHD. The authors stated: “At the moment, the quality of the available evidence means that we cannot say for sure whether taking methylphenidate will improve the lives of children and adolescents with ADHD.”
Ritalin and Cocaine
Like cocaine, Ritalin is a powerful stimulant that increases alertness and productivity. Ritalin and cocaine have a similar chemical structure and both increase dopamine levels in the brain. It is classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule II narcotic – the same classification as cocaine, opium, morphine, oxycodone, fentanyl, and amphetamines.
A 1998 study of California adolescents diagnosed with ADHD found that, as adults, those treated with Ritalin were three times more likely to use cocaine.
Behavioral, Structural and Neurochemical Changes
Writing in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology in 2012, Dr. Gabrielle Britton of Panama’s Center for Neuroscience noted: “There is evidence from animal studies that repeated exposure to methylphenidate produces behavioural, structural and neurochemical changes that persist long after drug administration has ended.”
Decrease in Brain Plasticity
Recent research studies have highlighted the effects of upregulation and downregulation that may occur with long-term use of Ritalin. A 2014 review in Frontiers in Systems: Neuroscience suggested long-term use of Ritalin for ADHD may result in changes in the availability of neurons and neurotransmitters in the brain that decrease brain plasticity in these individuals as they get older.
Brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change as a result of experience. Brain plasticity is associated with numerous behaviors and functional consequences, including the ability to learn new information, learn from experience, plan ahead, switch between tasks, and become flexible. Changes that occur in the brain associated with long-term use of Ritalin may decrease an individual’s potential in these areas.
Neurotransmitter GABA Linked to Inhibition Control
Dutch researchers in a study in NeuroImage: Clinical, noting that “long-term consequences of stimulant use in ADHD children and adolescents have so far been poorly studied,” found that stimulant treatment begun early during childhood led to reduced GABA levels in adults. “No studies so far have investigated the possible long-term effects of methylphenidate on the developing brain,” lead scientist Michelle M. Solleveld of the University of Amsterdam, told PsyPost.
Changes in Reward Regions of Mouse Brains
The National Institute of Health reported that investigators funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed Ritalin could cause physical changes in neurons in reward regions of mouse brains – in some cases, these effects overlapped with those of cocaine. Lead researcher Prof. Joan Baizer of the University of Buffalo points out that Ritalin, “has the potential for causing long-lasting changes in brain cell structure and function.”
Methylphenidate appears to initiate changes in brain function that remain after the therapeutic effects have dissipated. The changes appear to be similar to those that occur with other stimulant drugs such as amphetamine and cocaine.
A study in 2001 by Baizer revealed childhood use of stimulants damages frontal lobes which can cause anxiety and depression in adults.
No Improved Learning or Academic Achievement
In her review of studies investigating the neuropsychological effects of methylphenidate, Louisiana State University’s Dr. Claire Advokat concluded that while the use of stimulant drugs, such as methylphenidate or amphetamine, leads to increased attention and concentration, it does not result in improved learning or academic achievement.
Dr. Advokat reviewed more than 30 years of research involving children and adolescents, and reported, “the evidence does not support the conclusion that stimulants are cognitive enhancers. Stimulant drugs do not improve the academic performance of ADHD-diagnosed students.”
These Drugs Don’t Improve Human Life
Harvard trained psychiatrist Peter Breggin opposes prescribing psychiatric medications to children. His books include “The Ritalin Fact Book: What Your Doctor Won’t Tell You About ADHD and Stimulant Drugs.” Interviewed on the PBS Frontline TV show he stated: “There is no scientific reason or justification for giving psychoactive agents to children. There are no miracle drugs. Speed, these drugs are forms of speed, don’t improve human life. They reduce human life. And if you want less of a child, these drugs are very effective.”