Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is common among children and adults. It was once thought that children who get the disorder often outgrow it once they reach adulthood, but doctors and researchers have come to realize that many children never outgrow it. So, children as young as age 5 to start taking medications to treat ADHD. They may take medication on and off for years to help keep ADHD symptoms under control.
What are the consequences of taking ADHD medication, and can it cause dependence or addiction? Learn more about ADHD medications and their addiction potential.
ADHD medications are usually stimulants, but if you’re feeling hyperactive and easily distractible, a stimulant may seem counterproductive. However, to understand the effectiveness of stimulants, it’s important to understand how ADHD works in the brain.
ADHD causes a chemical imbalance, particularly around the chemical messenger called dopamine. Dopamine is an important chemical that’s tied to reward and motivation. It’s also called the happy chemical because of the way it lifts your mood when it’s released.
We don’t know exactly how ADHD affects dopamine and other parts of the human brain, but one theory is that ADHD causes a chronically under-aroused brain. In other words, people with ADHD experience less activity in certain parts of the brain that make them feel less motivated and rewarded by typical tasks.
So when someone with ADHD is doing something like math homework, their brain isn’t producing enough dopamine to keep them motivated toward the task. Their brains are constantly seeking a better source of dopamine release. So, when something like an interesting bird lands on the window sill, it’s almost irresistible to pay attention to it.
Stimulants work by increasing the amount of dopamine that’s released, decreasing the amount of dopamine that’s removed, or both. ADHD medications are intended to increase the overall level of dopamine in your brain to help keep you feeling motivated through tasks in everyday life.
For people with ADHD, stimulants serve to create balanced brain chemistry that’s similar to a typical brain. When the drug is taken as directed, it’s unlikely to cause significant substance use problems. You may start to become tolerant of a stimulant if you use it for a long time. It’s important to monitor how the drug affects you and let your doctor know about any side effects you experience.
Tolerance, dependence, and addiction are much more common among people who abuse ADHD medications. Stimulants increase dopamine and can cause feelings of euphoria when taken in high doses. However, your brain may adapt to the excess by altering your chemistry to counteract the drug. Addiction is caused when your reward center mistakes drugs for a viable source of chemical reward and works to encourage you to use stimulants repeatedly.
Most drugs that are used to treat ADHD are central nervous system depressants, and many of them are amphetamines or very similar.
ADHD medication is sometimes used recreationally to achieve euphoria and a feeling of excitement. However, they are more commonly used as cognitive-enhancing drugs. They are particularly common among college students who use them to increase the amount of time they can study and retain information. The drugs can help keep you awake and alert through all-night study sessions.
However, studies have investigated the cognitive-enhancing effects of ADHD medications in people without ADHD and found only small improvements in some people. ADHD medication abuse can lead to dangerous side effects, including insomnia, changes in heart rate, and changes in blood pressure.
If you or someone you know might be struggling with ADHD, there may be options to help get it under control. People with ADHD can live healthy and productive lives when their symptoms are managed.
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Marcin, J. (2016, October 31). Central Nervous System (CNS) Depression: Know the Facts. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/cns-depression
National Institute of Mental Health. (2019, September). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/index.shtml
Psychology Today. (n.d.). What Is Dopamine? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dopamine
Smith, M. E., & Farah, M. J. (2011, September). Are prescription stimulants "smart pills"? The epidemiology and cognitive neuroscience of prescription stimulant use by normal healthy individuals. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21859174