Fears over effect of ADHD drugs on child brains
Doctors advised to restrict prescription of medication for hyperactive children to the most severe cases
Drugs for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder can alter the structure of children’s brains, scientists have discovered, as they warn doctors against issuing unnecessary prescriptions. In 2017-18, 75,000 children in England received a prescription for ADHD medication.
DRUGS that counter attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can alter the structure of children’s brains, scientists have discovered as they warn doctors against issuing prescriptions unless strictly necessary.
Scans of children with ADHD taking methylphenidate – most commonly prescribed under the trade name of Ritalin – showed significant changes in the distribution of white matter, which is important for learning and coordinating communication between regions of the brain.
The difference between these children and other ADHD sufferers given a placebo was apparent after just four months.
A similar trial on adults showed no white matter changes between the methylphenidate and placebo participants, suggesting the brain is vulnerable to structural change while developing.
The study’s authors warned that the long-term impact of Ritalin on the brain was unknown, saying the drug should only be given to children who were significantly affected by ADHD.
In 2017-18, 75,000 children between the ages of six and 17 in England received a prescription for ADHD medication, according to the NHS.
This amounts to just over 1.5 per cent of boys and roughly 0.35 per cent of all girls of those ages.
The study also follows growing concern in recent years that university students – whose brains are still developing – are illegally acquiring prescription-only drugs to improve their concentration.
Liesbeth Reneman, the study’s senior author from the University of Amsterdam, said: “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.”
Published in the journal Radiology, the study involved 50 boys aged 10 to 12, and 48 adult men aged 23 to 40. MRI scans before and after the four-month period showed differences in the left hemisphere of the brain, including roughly a doubling of fractional anisotropy, which reflects aspects of white matter such as nerve fibre density, size and myelination – the process of coating nerve fibres.
Many ADHD patients are on Ritalin and other medications for years, despite their being little knowledge about its long-term effect on the brain.
Dr Punit Shah, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Bath, cautioned that brain structure was not always related to behaviour, and that doctors of ADHD patients should remain focused on this.
He added: “I agree with the authors’ sentiments about the [over] prescribing of medication for ADHD and related neurodevelopmental conditions.
“This is a bigger issue in the United States than the UK, but there is growing use of the pharmacological agents in children and young adults across the world.
“Indeed, ADHD medications are also inappropriately being used by university students, whose brains are also still developing, to boost their academic performance.”