Student Well-Being

Study: Ritalin May Cause Lasting Brain Changes

By Lisa Fine — November 14, 2001 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The drug methylphenidate, the generic form of Ritalin, may cause lasting changes in brain-cell function, according to researchers at the University of Buffalo.

The prevailing belief among physicians is that the effects of the drug, widely used to treat children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, are short-lived. But the scientists in the new study found that the drug affects the brain even after a course of therapy.

Changes in the brain caused by Ritalin were similar to those found with other stimulant drugs, including amphetamines and cocaine, said Joan Baizer, a professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Buffalo and the senior author of the study.

But Ms. Baizer said that the findings did not suggest that a person who takes Ritalin at therapeutic doses is more prone to addiction, which has been a controversial assertion made by some who oppose stimulant use in the treatment of children with ADHD.

“I have given the drug to my own child for years, and nothing we found calls the drug’s safety and usefulness into question,” Ms. Baizer said in an interview last week.

“We know it activates that part of the brain; we don’t know what it means. We just know that there is now more we need to know about what Ritalin does to the brain.”

The results of the study were scheduled to be presented Nov. 11 at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience, held in San Diego. The study has not been published.

No Human Test

Cocaine and amphetamines activate, in certain brain cells, genes called “immediate early genes,” which make a protein that in turn activates other genes, dubbed “c-fos” genes, Ms. Baizer said.

The University of Buffalo scientists wanted to see if methylphenidate acted in the same way as amphetamines and cocaine, which both cause c-fos activity in the striatum, a part of the brain that regulates motivation and movement.

Using rats as test subjects, the scientists gave one group of rats sweetened milk with methylphenidate, and another group milk only. Ms. Baizer said she gave rats enough methylphenidate to mimic a high therapeutic dose given to children.

After a certain amount of time, the rats were killed so the scientists could study sections of the animals’ brain tissue. Ms. Baizer said that because of the need to examine brain tissue, replicating the rat study on humans is not possible.

Examination showed that the rats that had been given methylphenidate had many more neurons with c-fos activity in their brains, particularly in the striatum, than did the rats in the control group, Ms. Baizer said.

Unanswered Questions

Other Ritalin experts said the study sounded interesting, but said the university’s work left too many questions unanswered to draw any meaningful conclusions.

“Certainly, Ritalin changes the brain, otherwise behavior itself would not change,” said Russell A. Barkley, the director of psychology and a professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, Mass.

“The question is whether those changes endure after medication has ceased and, if they do, if those lasting changes are deleterious or actually beneficial.”

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Study: Ritalin May Cause Lasting Brain Changes


Student Well-Being Webinar After-School Learning Top Priority: Academics or Fun?
Join our expert panel to discuss how after-school programs and schools can work together to help students recover from pandemic-related learning loss.
Budget & Finance Webinar Leverage New Funding Sources with Data-Informed Practices
Address the whole child using data-informed practices, gain valuable insights, and learn strategies that can benefit your district.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Classroom Technology Webinar
ChatGPT & Education: 8 Ways AI Improves Student Outcomes
Revolutionize student success! Don't miss our expert-led webinar demonstrating practical ways AI tools will elevate learning experiences.
Content provided by Inzata

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being 4 States Consider Mandating Fentanyl Prevention Education in Schools
Oregon is poised to adopt the legislation, but drug education in schools is often weak or underemphasized.
4 min read
Photograph of Fentanyl opioid narcotic teaching awareness tools sitting on a definition page
Bojan Vujicic/iStock/Getty<br/>
Student Well-Being The U.S. Surgeon General's Warning About Social Media and What It Means for Schools
Schools have been ringing alarm bells over social media and kids' mental health. Now their cause is getting a major boost.
6 min read
Conceptual image of a young person engaged in social media.
Student Well-Being Opinion What Teachers Get Wrong About Creativity
Because of the priorities school systems set, teachers often stifle students' creativity without even realizing it.
Teresa Amabile
4 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Student Well-Being Teachers Say Improving Students’ Mental Well-Being Begins at Home
Schools are trying a smorgasbord of approaches to address students' deteriorating mental health. Where do parents fit into this equation?
4 min read
Photo of parent and child working on homework.
E+ / Getty