New Study Reveals How ADHD Drugs “Alter The Structure of Children’s Brains”

By Elias Marat

As attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) continues to remain an extremely common diagnosis for children in the United States, researchers are warning doctors to hold off on issuing popular ADHD drugs such as Ritalin and Concerta unless absolutely necessary.

The warnings come as scans of children who take such drugs as methylphenidate (MPH), commonly known as Ritalin, show that they have a major effect on the development of white matter in the brains of children, impairing their ability to learn and coordinate communication between regions of the brain.

These drastic effects are completely absent when adults take methylphenidate, showing no such structural changes to the brain, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Radiology.

In the study, scientists from the University of Amsterdam analyzed MTH’s impact on children’s white matter development by gathering 50 boys and 49 adult males who were all diagnosed with ADHD. None of the participants had previously taken the drug before the study, making the study the first of its kind to look at how the drug alters brain development.

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Study senior author Dr. Liesbeth Reneman explained in a release:

Previous studies all have tried to statistically control for the effects of ADHD medications … But we are the first to study medication-naïve patients in this context, which, of course, is crucial if you want to know how ADHD medications affect the developing brain.

Participants were divided into two groups: one which took MPH every day for 16 weeks, and another that took a placebo during the same period. MRI procedures were undertaken one week before and one week after the trial period.

The MRIs found that white matter levels in the participants’ brains were increased for boys who took MPH during the trial period, but the same results weren’t observed for adults who were given MPH.

Reneman said:

The results show that ADHD medications can have different effects on the development of brain structure in children versus adults.

In adult men with ADHD, and both boys and adult men receiving placebo, changes in FA measures were not present, suggesting that the effects of methylphenidate on brain white matter are modulated by age.

The researchers warn that because the long-term consequences for the brain of these ADHD drugs remain unknown, such medications should be reserved only for children who are profoundly affected by ADHD.

Reneman noted:

“What our data already underscore is that the use of ADHD medications in children must be carefully considered until more is known about the long-term consequences of prescribing methylphenidate at a young age.”

However, due to what some critics have called an “ADHD overdiagnosis epidemic” – with 9.4 percent of all U.S. children being diagnosed with ADHD as of 2016 –  roughly 5.2 percent of all children in the U.S. between the ages of 2 and 17 are currently taking ADHD medication, according to the CDC.

Dr. Punit Shah, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Bath, told The Telegraph:

I agree with the authors’ sentiments about the (over)prescribing of medication for ADHD and related neurodevelopmental conditions.

This is a bigger issue in the U.S. than the U.K., but there is growing use of the pharmacological agents in children and young adults across the world.

Indeed, ADHD medications are also inappropriately being used by university students, whose brains are also still developing, to boost their academic performance.

Elias Marat / Creative Commons / The Mind Unleashed

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