This ADHD medication could affect brain development in children

A drug commonly used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may impact the brain development of children, according to new findings published in Radiology.

Methylphenidate (MPH), known as both Ritalin and Concerta, is considered effective in 60-80% of patients. However, the study’s authors noted, its full effect on the brain is not yet fully understood.

“Previous studies all have tried to statistically control for the effects of ADHD medications,” senior author Liesbeth Reneman, MD, PhD, University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, said in a prepared statement. “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.”

Reneman and colleagues used diffusion MRI to study how MPH impacted a study cohort of 50 boys and 49 young adult men. All patients had been previously diagnosed with ADHD, but had never received MPH.

For 16 weeks, each patient was either given MPH or a placebo, undergoing diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) before treatment and one week after treatment. Boys who received MPH were associated with increased levels of white matter fractional anisotropy (FA), believed to highlight “important aspects of white matter such as nerve fiber density, size and myelination.” Adults treated with MPH did not show such an impact.

These findings, according to the researchers, suggest that caution should be used when prescribing ADHD to children.

“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,” Reneman said. “The drug should only be prescribed to children who actually have ADHD and are significantly affected by it.”

Since children often take ADHD medication for years, Reneman and colleagues are now focused on the long-term impacts of MPH.