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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Amphetamines and ADHD

05/22/1998

Question:

Why do they give amphetamines to sufferers of ADHD and ADD?

Answer:

Amphetamines are used to treat ADHD because they help improve the symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. They are thought to do this by improving the function of several areas in the brain through increased neurochemicals such as dopamine, and improved brain cell metabolism (use of sugar by the cells to work properly). The neurochemicals normally help brain cells talk to each other and other parts of the body. The neurochemicals also affect thoughts and emotions. There are also some thoughts that there is less blood flowing to the affected areas of the brain in persons affected with ADHD and that amphetamines may seem to improve this problem. The most important areas of the brain affected by amphetamines are the frontal lobes (located in the front of the brain) and the reticular activating system (located at the base of the brain). The frontal lobes control reasoning and planning, both of which are needed to keep impulsive behaviors under control. The reticular activating system controls unconscious body functions such as breathing, heart rate, and alertness, which occur naturally without having to think about them. A significant part of attention is also controlled in this area of the brain. Several other areas of the brain help these two major areas, when controlling alertness, impulses, and activity level. When any of these areas of the brain are not working well, ADHD can be seen. One common mistake that is made is that if the child can concentrate on an activity such as Nintendo, that he/she doesn't have ADHD. This may not necessarily be a true statement. Some children or adults with ADHD actually are less active than usual or can be very vigilant in some situations, concentrating on something to the point of exclusion of their surroundings. An example would be: A child is watching a television show and doesn't realize that someone is using a very loud tone of voice to get his or her attention. Amphetamines, which are stimulant medicines, help the over or under activity present in the brain that controls the symptoms of ADHD.

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Response by:

Margaret C Sweeney, MD
Formerly, Associate Professor of Clinical Family Medicine
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati