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Are ADHD medications addictive?

In the previous article, we discussed how the side effects of methylphenidate, better known as Ritalin, are similar to those experienced by adults who take stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines. Today, there are nearly three million children who take Ritalin to cope with ADHD - and this number is on the rise. Due to its chemical similarity to other addictive stimulants, it is no wonder that parents are concerned whether children who take Ritalin will become addicted to the drug, or whether children on Ritalin will form a drug habit later on in life. Before we try to look for an answer to the question, "Are ADHD medicines such as Ritalin addictive?", we must first look at two different modes of administering the drug.

The first mode of administration is the illegal or the non-medical mode. This is when individuals diagnosed or not diagnosed with ADHD take Ritalin the way they would take illicit drugs. When taken this way, Ritalin has potential for drug abuse and misuse. In fact, abuse of methylphenidate is quite popular among many age groups. In a study done by Quinton and Byrne in 2000, they discovered that 16% of students in a public liberal arts college reported trying methylphenidate as a recreational drug. They also discovered that recreational use of methylphenidate is more common among traditional college students, and that reports of methylphenidate use were equivalent to use of cocaine and amphetamines among college students. In 2001, a study by Meadow shows that middle school and high school students have also been found to abuse Ritalin in order to suppress appetite or to stay awake. Because of the addictive potential of methylphenidate, the United States Federal Drug Association lists Ritalin as a Class II controlled substance, meaning that physicians need to use a special prescription for the drug that does not allow refills.

The second mode of administration, which is the medical mode, is when the individual takes a controlled dosage of methylphenidate as prescribed by a doctor. Ritalin is typically administered in 5, 10, and 20 mg, and is taken by mouth. Now, the concern of parents is whether there will be an increased risk of drug abuse among children who take ADHD medication prescribed by a doctor. As of now, there is no conclusive answer to this question. A first study done in 2003 showed that children with ADHD who took controlled dosages of Ritalin had a lower risk of substance abuse later in life compared to children with ADHD who did not take medication. Five years later however, the same researchers came up with a follow-up study on the same children. The conclusions were quite different: Ritalin use did not reduce, nor did it increase, the risk of substance abuse later on in life. What is disturbing about this particular study though, is that two of the four main authors received about 1.6 million dollars from manufacturers of Ritalin between 2000 and 2007, putting into question the integrity of the conclusions and the nature of the study itself.

A recent study done on rats showed that Ritalin created some structural and chemical changes in the brain that were as strong, if not stronger than cocaine. However, we still don't know what is does in the long-run to the brain of developing children.

To this day, it is difficult to come up with a generalizable and conclusive answer to the question of whether or not Ritalin will lead to a drug addiction later in life, as there are also many individual factors that come into play. Even if Ritalin taken medically is not an addictive substance, it can still bring a host of serious side effects. If it is absolutely necessary for the child to take Ritalin, it needs to be taken with caution, under strict supervision, and should not be favoured over a more holistic approach to dealing with ADHD.