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How Does Ritalin Work?

written by: Daniel P. McGoldrick • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 2/21/2011

So, how does Ritalin work to alleviate ADHD symptoms and promote more stable behavior? First, we’ll briefly describe how the brain of someone with ADHD is different in order for you to understand the mechanisms of action that are associated with the relieving affects of Ritalin.

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    How Does Ritalin Work? First We Must Understand the Abnormalities in an ADHD Brain

    ADHD PET Scans The brain of someone with ADHD is wired and even sized differently. As you’ll learn from reading about what ADHD does to the brain, researchers have posited that certain parts of the ADHD brain are actually smaller. Through the use of brain scanning, they've found that a person with ADHD typically has a smaller prefrontal lobe (10% smaller) which is the portion of the brain responsible for reasoning, planning, and solving problems. This may be the cause of inattentive behavior, impulsivity, and over-stimulation. But it’s more of the abnormalities associated with neurotransmitters dopamine (DA) and norepinephrine (NE), that Ritalin is designed to contend and essentially interfere with.

    Dopamine is associated with mood, risk taking, impulsivity, and reward. Norepinephrine is believed to moderate attention, arousal, and mood. Careful brain studies have led researchers to believe that defects in receptors genes and transporter proteins of these neurotransmitters play an important role in creating the abnormal functions of an ADHD brain.

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    Mechanisms of Action in Ritalin

    Since Ritalin is a psychostimulant, it therefore increases brain activity. When administered orally, Ritalin is absorbed into the bloodstream and then carried to the brain. In the 60- 90 minutes after a person takes it, the drug reaches its peak concentration. When in the brain, Ritalin blocks dopamine transporters which in turn results in increased levels of extracellular dopamine. Effectually amplifying dopamine signals in the brain, nerve signals are thereby increased which helps the person to concentrate better.

    Ritalin has a strong affect on the reward and pleasure centers of the brain and reduces its ability to create the new neural pathways that can lead to hyperactivity. In some ways it also decreases the intensity of constantly being distracted by all the stimuli in the world. In many patients, it creates a sense of wellness that they might otherwise not feel. There are certainly some side-effects and concerns to understand which you can read about in Pros and Cons for Ritalin Treatment in Adult ADHD.

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    How Does Ritalin Work to Relieve ADHD Symptoms?

    Ritalin Although extensive and conclusive studies are not prominent, many ADHD patients respond well to the drug and believe that it increases their ability to focus, concentrate, and complete tasks. This relief from ADHD symptoms spills over into improved organizational skills and the ability to do better in school, work, and in relationships. It helps regulate behavior and control the impulsivity and risky behavior that can be so disruptive in an ADHD patient. Many feel that the calmness a person on Ritalin experiences is well worth any negative side effects. You may find the history of Ritalin and a discussion of the early trials an intriguing read. As with any medication, weigh the matter very carefully with your doctor and stop taking it immediately if you don’t feel right.

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    The content of this article is for information purposes only and is not intended to replace sound medical advice and opinion.

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    Stimulant ADHD Medications - Methylphenidate and Amphetamines" National Institution on Drug Abuse

    ND Volklow, JS Fowler, G Wang “Mechanism of Action of Methylphenidate: Insights from PET Imaging Studies" Journal of Attention Disorders 6:S31-43 (2002)