Child & Family Development Child & Family Development

June 28, 2016

ADHD Medication Overview


One common question during psychoeducational evaluation parent conferences is, ‚ÄúHow exactly does ADHD medication work?‚Äù  A recent article published by The Understood Team called ‚ÄúADHD Medication: A Glance at How it Works‚Äù helps illuminate this subject.  Devon Redmond PhD, Child and Family Development psychologist, provides this summary: 

There are a variety of treatment options for individuals with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), including individual therapy, parent consultation, behavioral strategies, classroom accommodations, and organizational skills training.  Medication is another tool that may possibly be a part of your child‚Äôs treatment plan for ADHD.  Whether medication is right for your child is an individual decision that is best discussed with a medical doctor, such as your child‚Äôs pediatrician or a psychiatrist.  Medication is not right for everyone with ADHD, nor is it necessary for everyone with ADHD.  However, it has been helpful for many.  

In order for us to do the most simple to the most complex of tasks, we rely on brain cells to rapidly communicate with one another.   These brain cells, or neurons, pass information along to other neurons in the form of electrical signals.  The tail end of the sending neuron releases a small amount of chemicals called neurotransmitters.  These chemicals have to cross a tiny gap, called a synapse, to reach the tip of the receiving neuron.  Some neurotransmitters reach landing pads (receptors) on the receiving neuron that activate that neuron to pass the signal along.  The rest of the neurotransmitters are taken back up into the sending neuron in a process called reuptake.  Reuptake helps the neuron get ready to send another signal. 

It has been found that individuals with ADHD have differences in their brain chemistry that can make it more difficult for signals to get where they need to go quickly and efficiently.  This may be because neurons do not release enough neurotransmitters, receptors may have trouble ‚Äúcatching‚Äù the neurotransmitters, or the neurotransmitters may get sucked back up into the sending neuron before activating the next neuron.  Trouble passing information from neuron to neuron can help explain symptoms such as difficulty maintaining attention and motivation, as well as restlessness and impulsivity.

ADHD medication can help with neurotransmission by enhancing the release of neurotransmitters, by stimulating the receptors so they are able to pick up more of the signal, and by slowing down the reuptake process so neurotransmitters have more time to activate the next neuron.  The results of improved communication between neurons may be increased alertness and attention, decreased hyperactivity, and better information processing.    Medication does not ‚Äúcure‚Äù ADHD, but can temporarily reduce symptoms while it is active in the body.

There are two kinds of ADHD medication, stimulants and non-stimulants.  Within the stimulant group, there are two types, methylphenidates (e.g., Concerta, Focalin, Ritalin), and amphetamines (e.g., Adderall, Vyvanse).  Examples of non-stimulant medications include Strattera and Guanfacine.   Common side effects of ADHD medications include decreased appetite, trouble sleeping, and mild anxiety or restlessness. 

Read the full article here.  Again, medication is not right for everyone with ADHD, nor is it necessary for everyone with ADHD.  Please consult a physician or a psychiatrist to discuss whether ADHD medication is right for you or your loved one.