Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disoder (ADHD) is a condition affecting behavior and focus. Symptoms can cause difficulty in school, home, work and social situations.
As ADHD is a disorder based in neurobiological changes in the brain, treatment plans often include ADHD medications. Children and adults with ADHD can both benefit from medications, which can reduce hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention by changing brain chemistry.
ADHD and the Brain
ADHD is a complex disorder with a network of interacting causes. Research has indicated two types of differences in the brains of individuals with ADHD. Anatomical differences in the brain’s structure include differences of thickness or size in areas including the prefrontal cortex, which controls attention and focus. Physiological differences refer to changes in the brain’s function. Neurotransmitters, chemicals responsible for helping the brain transmit messages, are not properly balanced in the brain of a person with ADHD.
How do ADHD Medications Work?
ADHD medications help establish a proper balance of neurotransmitter activity in the brain. These neurotransmitters, including dopamine, adrenaline and serotonin, affect behavior and the mediation of attention. An ADHD medications list typically includes several different classes of medications, all of which act on neurotransmitters.
Psychostimulants are the most popular ADHD medications. Though using a stimulant to combat ADHD may seem strange, these drugs stimulate neurotransmitter activity rather than physical activity. Psychostimulants include:
- Amphetamine (AdderallÂ®)
- Dexmethylphenidate (FocalinÂ®)
- Dextroamphetamine (DexedrineÂ®)
- Methylphenidate (RitalinÂ®).
Most individuals using ADHD medication report success with psychostimulants. Though they tend to have side effects, these are generally mild.
Selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are sometimes used to treat ADHD. The most common is atomoxetine (StratteraÂ®). SNRIs, like psychostimulants, work by increasing neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically norepinephrine. SNRIs are used primarily by individuals whose symptoms don’t respond to psychostimulants, or those who experience unacceptable side effects.
In rare cases, antidepressants can be used to treat ADHD. These drugs are prescribed for individuals with co-occurring mood disorders or for those whose symptoms don’t respond to SNRIs or psychostimulants.
Choosing the Right ADHD Medication
Individuals with ADHD react differently to the different types of ADHD medications available. Your doctor will help you choose the ADHD medication that’s most effective for you. The process usually begins with choosing a medication and beginning a trial. Symptoms and possible medication side effects should be tracked carefully during this period to determine the effectiveness of the medication.
If the medication doesn’t seem to improve symptoms or if adverse side effects begin, your doctor may recommend a new dose or a new medication. Some medications are effective only after a few weeks have gone by, so allow your body to adjust to a medication before deciding whether it’s working for you. Follow dosage instructions carefully, and never stop taking a prescribed ADHD medication without first consulting your doctor. Determining which medication provides the best symptom relief can be difficult, and can require some trial and error before the most effective choice is found.
New Zealand Online ADHD Support Group. (2008). The neurobiology of ADHD. Retrieved August 12, 2010, from http://www.adhd.org.nz/neuro1.html.
Rosack, J. (2004). Brain scans reveal physiology of ADHD. Psychiatric News, 39(1), 26.
American Academy of Family Physicians. (2009). ADHD medicines. Retrieved August 15, 2010, from http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/children/parents/behavior/103.html.
KidsHealth. (2010). ADHD medications. Retrieved August 15, 2010, from http://kidshealth.org/teen/drug_alcohol/drugs/ritalin.html.