Can Ritalin help people overcome drug addiction?

The effects of methylphenidate -- a stimulant used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder -- are interesting. The drug clearly helps many people with ADHD with mental focus and concentration. And although many parents fear giving the medication to children diagnosed with ADHD because it is a drug (and drugs can be abused), studies show that those children and teens who benefit from the medication are less likely to abuse drugs. Kids with ADHD who are untreated are at higher risk for substance abuse issues.

Now a study has come along that ties the benefits of methylphenidate with treatment for substance abuse. The study found that giving Ritalin, a brand name for methylphenidate, to people with cocaine addiction seemed to help them with impulse control. Impulse control is, of course, a major reason why people succumb to substance abuse even when they know it’s bad for them.

Researchers from Yale University gave 10 volunteers Ritalin and then used functional MRI to scan their brain activity while they engaged in a computer task that assessed impulse control. When the 10 subjects received Ritalin, they were better able to control their impulses than during a separate session, two days later, when they received a placebo instead of the medication. Functional MRI scans showed changes from Ritalin use in brain areas that reflect inhibitory control, particularly a region called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain seems to be crucial to “behavioral control during emotionally difficult situations,” the authors wrote. And Ritalin appears to help normalize it.

The study was small, however, and future research will be needed to determine whether Ritalin could be part of the arsenal of treatment options for people with addictions. The study was released Monday in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

-- Shari Roan

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