central nervous system stimulant that increases nerve activity in the brain by triggering the release of neurotransmitters. It reduces drowsiness and increases alertness by its action on the reticular activating system in the brain stem and midbrain. It is often given as part of a treatment program for
About 3 percent to 5 percent of the general population has the disorder, which is characterized by agitated behavior and an inability to focus on tasks.
Ritalin has effects similar to, but more potent than, caffeine—but weaker than amphetamines. It has a notably calming effect on hyperactive children and a "focusing" effect on those with ADHD.
Scientists think ADHD occurs in part because certain receptors in the brain involved in focusing attention and reining in impulsiveness fail to respond to dopamine and norepinephrine, the brain's natural neurotransmitters. It is the interaction between these chemicals and the brain's receptors that help most people stick with tedious chores or rein in inappropriate impulses. Researchers think that drugs like Ritalin boost the level of these brain chemicals and stimulate the inhibitory receptors—which is why a stimulant drug can increase inhibition. The drugs enter the body quickly, curing nothing but helping a child focus on the important work of learning.
Although the drug clearly reduces the symptoms of ADHD, and many students have been taking the drug for years, no studies have continued long enough to see if it has a lasting effect on academic performance or social behavior. Moreover, a positive response to Ritalin does not automatically mean a child suffers from ADHD. Stimulants can temporarily sharpen almost anyone's focus.
First introduced in the 1940s, Ritalin is usually prescribed as a part of a treatment plan that includes educational and psychosocial interventions for children with behavior characterized by:
• moderate-to-severe distractibility
• short attention span
• emotional lability
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