These psychotropic medications stimulate the central nervous system (CNS) by boosting the release of certain chemicals in the brain. Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine), Dexedrine (amphetamine salts), and Ritalin (methylphenidate) are the most commonly prescribed brands of these drugs. These drugs achieve their beneficial effects by increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine, one of the most important neurotransmitters, is related to concentration, attention, and feelings of reward and pleasure. Some stimulant drugs also increase the level of glutamate, a neurotransmitter associated with behavioral control and inhibition. People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often have low levels of glutamate.
ADHD, both in children and adults, is the most common reason for a CNS stimulant prescription. By one estimate, 8% of children have ADHD, while 2% to 5% of adults are diagnosed. While it may seem odd to prescribe a stimulant drug to someone with hyperactivity, these drugs actually increase a person's ability to control their urges and behaviors. Overall, the effect is calming and leads to improved focus in school and work.
Stimulant drugs are also prescribed for the treatment of narcolepsy. People with narcolepsy have sudden attacks of extreme sleepiness, impairing basic functioning and preventing them from doing simple tasks like driving or working a regular job. Stimulants help the person maintain alertness throughout the day.
Doctors will typically start a patient on a low dose of stimulant drugs, gradually working up to a dosage that's a good balance between effectiveness and adverse effects. The most common side effects of stimulant medications are decreased appetite, sleep disturbances, and headache. Less common side effects include movement disturbances called "tics" and changes to personality.
Recently, nonstimulant alternatives to Ritalin and Adderall have made inroads in the treatment of ADHD. Strattera (atomoxetine) is an example of the next generation of ADHD medications. There are many advantages to a nonstimulant treatment solution. For one, there is much less potential for abuse or addiction. Nonprescription use of drugs like Adderall and Dexedrine represents a serious problem, especially in academic and other performance-oriented environments. In addition, nonstimulant medications typically have fewer side effects than their stimulant counterparts.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). InfoFacts: Stimulant ADHD medications - methylphenidate and amphetamines. Retrieved April 23, 2012, from
National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Mental health medications. Retrieved April 23, 2012, from
Last Update: 06-28-2012
Psychotropic Medication Articles