An animal study recently published in the Journal of Neural Transmission revealed that nonprescription use of the stimulant drug Ritalin, a common treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), was associated with increased risk-taking behaviors, sleep disruption, and other unpleasant side effects. As part of the study, a team of researchers at the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions examined how the Ritalin affected the brain chemistry in rats that were given regular doses of the drug. The animal models received the doses during a period that would be equivalent to adolescence in humans, where crucial brain growth and development take place.
“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. 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 more about the effects of methylphenidate is also important as people with ADHD show greater risk to be diagnosed with a drug dependency problem. In addition, this study highlights the potential long-range risks college students take in using Ritalin for a quick study boost,” senior researcher Panayotis (Peter) Thanos said in ScienceDaily.com.
According to the study, female rats were more susceptible to these behavioral effects compared with male rats. Thanos hopes that determining Ritalin’s effect on people without ADHD may provide better insight on how it interacts with the brain and behavior, which in turn may help researchers gauge the drug’s impact in young people.
Ritalin spurs risky behaviors in otherwise healthy users
The recent study was not the first time Ritalin was associated with risky behaviors. In fact, a 2012 study published in Neuroscience showed that the drug spurred impulsive behaviors in women. To carry out the study, a team of researchers enrolled 40 adult healthy women. The participants were split into two groups: one receiving Ritalin and the other taking placebo. The participants were then instructed to play a gambling game that was designed to make them lose. Each participant was given 30 chances to accept defeat or go for a “double-or-nothing” gamble.
The researchers found that women who took a placebo readily accepted their loss when the stakes of the game went higher. In contrast, those who took Ritalin continued to exhibit risky behavior regardless of the stakes. These results suggested that the drug may indeed prompt risky decision making in otherwise healthy individuals, researchers said.
In 2015, Health Canada has issued safety warnings against ADHD medications such as Ritalin. According to the agency, the warning was due in part to reports of suicide-related events — such as thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts and even complete suicide — in patients taking ADHD drugs. The experts noted that patients taking such medications were already at an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Despite previous reports about Ritalin’s potentially harmful effects, a study published in Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review revealed that 17 percent of college students misuse the medication. The research team said the students either use the drug without a prescription, or take the drug in higher doses. According to the experts, the primary reason for drug misuse was to boost academic performance.
The students were also found to use the drug for recreational purposes. The researchers cautioned that while the drug was used less frequently for this purpose, taking the drug along with alcohol would be detrimental to the health.