Study: Illicit Use of Ritalin May Cause Changes in Brain

Published December 17, 2018

Nonprescription use of Ritalin may cause irreversible structural changes in certain areas of the brain, according to researchers in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and UB’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions (CRIA).

“We found that chronic use of this drug by those without ADHD-like symptoms resulted in neuroinflammation in regions of the brain which are related to motivated behavior.”
Senior research scientist in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and UB’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions

Neuroinflammations Occur in Regions of Brain

Panayotis Thanos, PhD, senior research scientist in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and the CRIA, conducted a study using animal models to see what the effects of methylphenidate (brand name: Ritalin) might be for those without symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Many college and high school students without ADHD use Ritalin as a stimulant in order to feel more focused, receive a “high” or lose weight.

“We found that chronic use of this drug by those without ADHD-like symptoms resulted in neuroinflammation in regions of the brain which are related to motivated behavior,” Thanos says.

“One month after use was stopped, the inflammation and structural changes were still there,” he adds. “This could result in long-term risks for young adults, as these areas of the brain also influence addiction and the ability to respond to changes in the environment.”

Abuse Most Common Among Young People

Thanos says there is particular cause for concern because illicit use of Ritalin is more common among young people — whose brains are still developing.

“Although Ritalin can be very effective in the treatment of ADHD, it is not without risk for those without ADHD to take it chronically,” he notes.

“Here again, the important thing to remember is to take only with a prescription and as directed by a doctor,” Thanos adds.

Published in Journal of Neural Transmission

The study appears in the current issue of Journal of Neural Transmission. Lead author is Emily Carias, a former master’s student in the Behavioral Neuropharmacology and Neuroimaging Laboratory (BNNLA) run by Thanos at the CRIA.

Other co-authors from UB are:

  • Rina Das Eiden, PhD, a senior research scientist in CRIA and the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences
  • John Hamilton, a doctoral student in the BNNLA
  • Teresa Quattrin, MD, UB Distinguished Professor of pediatrics and senior associate dean for research integration

Other co-authors are from the following institutions:

  • Albany Medical College
  • New York Institute of Technology
  • Stony Brook University
  • University of Ioannina, Greece