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What Makes Ritalin Work?

It’s pretty common knowledge that Ritalin—a prescription drug with the chemical name methylphenidate—is widely prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the United States.

In fact, it’s one of the most widely used drugs for any condition. Lawrence H. Diller, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of the 1998 book Running on Ritalin, pointed out that it’ s now prescribed to some four million children in the United States annually.

What parents, physicians or anyone else in the American medical establishment hadn’t known was just how Ritalin worked its apparent magic of calming overactive children and helping them focus their attention more productively.

Recent research published in the January 15 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, however, is being hailed as a big step forward in understanding the drug’s method of action in human beings.

Nearly Half a Century of Uncertainty

According to Peter R. Breggin, M.D., director of the International Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology in Bethesda, Md., stimulant drugs, including methylphenidate and amphetamine, were first approved for the control of problem behaviors in children in the mid-1950s.

By the mid-1990s, ADHD was the most commonly diagnosed mental health condition of childhood. And the rate at which Ritalin was being prescribed had begun to soar.

But although it has been widely and steadily used for decades for a range of behaviors such as distractibility, short attention span, hyperactivity, impulsivity and emotional lability, even the experts prescribing Ritalin weren’t sure how the drug achieved its results. After many years of mislabeling its effects as “paradoxical,” many in the mental health community admitted the drug’s method of action in the human brain was completely baffling.

It’s only now—after more than 40 years of uncertainty—that the answer has emerged. According to Nora Volkow, M.D., lead researcher and associate laboratory director at Brookhaven, Ritalin works by stimulating the brain chemical dopamine.

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Studies in Mice Provide Clues

The Brookhaven scientists’ findings came about two years after researchers at Duke University Medical Center reported that Ritalin and similar stimulant drugs seemed to boost the levels of both dopamine and serotonin in laboratory mice.

Dopamine is believed to be carry messages from one part of the brain to another. Serotonin, by contrast, is a brain chemical associated with a sense of well-being.

What Makes Ritalin Work?

Holly VanScoy, Ph.D

APA Reference
VanScoy, H. (2020). What Makes Ritalin Work?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.