The Effects of Ritalin on Play and Other Spontaneous Behavior

For children and adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), Ritalin (methylphenidate) is typically the medication of choice. As a psychostimulant drug, Ritalin increases the concentration of the neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenalin in the brain. These neurotransmitters are partly responsible for impulse control and attention, among other things.

Studies in both rats and humans have verified that Ritalin effectively controls the three primary symptoms of ADHD: inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. When ADHD goes into remission, the person’s quality of life and performance in work or school measurably improve.

Despite these benefits, critics have wondered about the potential negative effects of this heavily prescribed medication. For one thing, no one fully understands how Ritalin functions in the brain. More importantly, little information exists as to the long-term effects of a psychostimulant drug on the developing brain. A recent study with rats highlighted a possibly adverse effect of Ritalin that had previously been overlooked.

Adolescent play behavior is important in terms of both mental and social development. Through play, children learn the basic “rules” of social interaction and receive the rewards of companionship. Isolated children often have difficulty adjusting to adult life and navigating social situations. Researchers investigating Ritalin’s effect on social play found that the medication significantly reduces the behavior in rats.

Adolescent rats treated with low doses of Ritalin were apt to ignore invitation to play, instead remaining focused on their general environment. The effect was surprisingly specific. Rats demonstrated the same overall activity levels as untreated counterparts, but less overt play behavior and social interaction. Some rats were isolated for up to 24 hours before release into a play area. Researchers believed a long period of isolation would enhance play despite the effects of Ritalin, but they were mistaken. Regardless of isolation period, Ritalin proved to be a powerful blocker of normal, social play behavior.

The beneficial effects of Ritalin for people with ADHD are inseparable from the possibly negative effects of inhibited play. By its very nature, play is a complex, dynamic, but not necessarily focused activity. One of the primary aspects of Ritalin’s overall effect is to inhibit “unfocused,” freewheeling behaviors—including play, apparently. This calls for more research and possibly long-term studies of the potential consequences of Ritalin prescription throughout childhood and adolescence. It’s possible that this medication poses more risks than previously believed.

References:

  1. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – PubMed Health. (n.d.). National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002518/
  2. Vandershuren, L., Trezza, V., Griffioen-Roose, S., Schiepers, O., Van Leeuwen, N., De Vries, T.J., and Schoffelmeer, A. (2008). Methylphenidate disrupts social play behavior in adolescent rats. Neuropsychopharmacology, 33, (12), 2946-2956.

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