Recreational Ritalin Use Alters Dopamine Neurochemistry

For young people who don’t have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, recreationally taking Ritalin may lead to changes in brain chemistry associated with risk-taking behavior, sleep disruption, and other undesirable effects, a new study suggests.

Ritalin, the brand name for methylphenidate, a central nervous system stimulant used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is a growing problem among college students who use it without a prescription as a so-called “study enhancer.” The drug works by increasing the concentration of certain neurotransmitters in the brain that control reasoning, problem solving, and other behaviors.

Panayotis Thanos, senior research scientist at the Research Institute on Addictions at the University at Buffalo, said:

“Although Ritalin’s effectiveness in treating ADHD is well-documented, few studies have looked at the drug’s effect on non-prescribed illicit use. We wanted to explore the effects of this stimulant drug on the brain, behavior, and development on non-ADHD subjects.”

Brain Chemistry Changes

Recent studies put college students’ nonprescription use of stimulant drugs (Ritalin and amphetamines such as Adderall and Dexedrine) at rates anywhere between 14 and 38 percent, depending on the type of college and age of student.

The common belief is that these drugs can help students to focus and concentrate when studying and perform better on tests. Alarmingly, these drugs are finding their way into high schools, as well, for the same reasons.

Thanos’ team looked at changes in the brains of rats who received regular doses of methylphenidate during what would be equivalent to adolescence in humans, a time of significant brain growth and development. The chamges involved increases in striatal dopamine transporter and dopamine type 1 receptor binding.

“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,” Thanos says.

“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.”

Understanding Methylphenidate Effects

Further research indicated that female subjects were more sensitive to the behavioral effects of methylphenidate than the males.

Thanos hopes that studying the effects of methylphenidate on those without ADHD may lead to a greater understanding of how the drug works on the brain and behavior, and can help researchers understand the impact of the drug on young people throughout development.

“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,” Thanos says. “In addition, this study highlights the potential long-range risks college students take in using Ritalin for a quick study boost.”

The work was funded by the New York State Research Foundation and the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health.

Robison, L.S., Ananth, M., Hadjiargyrou, M. et al.
Chronic oral methylphenidate treatment reversibly increases striatal dopamine transporter and dopamine type 1 receptor binding in rats
J Neural Transm (2017) 124: 655. doi:10.1007/s00702-017-1680-4

Image: Joshua McKenna/Flickr

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