ADHD: How ritalin sharpens attention

ADHD: How ritalin sharpens attention


The drug has been available for more than 50 years and has been shown to be effective in treating ADHD, but its mode of action has not been fully understood. These Pitt neuroscientists provide a rare insight into how Ritalin affects brain activity — here in the animal — thus improving the understanding that certain groups of brain cells control attention. These findings suggest new indications for the stimulant.

While 1 in 11 children in rich countries are prescribed a stimulant such as MPH to improve attention and concentration in cases of ADHD, which many adults also use these drugs outside of marketing authorization, it is essential to understand their operation. Indeed, while there have been more studies on the possible side effects of these long-term treatments, their prescriptions have exploded in recent years in children, adolescents, but also in adults.

“We know very little about the effect of these drugs on the activity of different groups of neurons,” said lead author Dr. Marlene Cohen, a professor of neuroscience at the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of the Arts. Science: “Understanding what these drugs do to specific groups of neurons can give us clues to other useful indications.”

MPH, activation of neurons in the visual cortex and concentration

Previous studies by the same team had previously suggested a link between the performance of animals on a visual task and a particular measurement of neurons in the visual cortex – in particular, the probability that these neurons are triggered independently of each other, as opposed to to stay in sync. New research reveals that MPH-treated animals perform better in a visual attention task and that this improvement occurs at exactly the same time as this specific neuronal triggering neural activity. Specifically, researchers note that:

  • the days when animal models receive the MPH, they spend more time on a test task, they do it better, but only when the required task is on an object on which they are already focusing;
  • some groups of neurons then trigger independently of each other;
  • the drug thus alters the activity of these specific neurons, suggesting new uses for the drug. Because the research reveals similarities between attention-related neural patterns and certain types of learning, suggesting that MPH may also be effective in treating certain learning disorders.

“These stimulants may actually be useful in treating many disorders, from cognitive impairment to normal aging, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.”.

At this point, these data are a first step in better understanding how these drugs, by acting on activating specific groups of neurons, affect our behaviors.

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