ADHD Study at Boston University Questions Medications

Dr. Kathleen Kantak thinks medicating adolescents with ADHD may lead to cocaine use later in life.

Pills image via shutterstock

Pills image via shutterstock

In 2011, more than six million children and adolescents in the U.S. were diagnosed with ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), and that number grows every year. According to the CDC, of the roughly six million ADHD patients, six percent were taking ADHD medication in 2011. As the number of ADHD diagnoses grows each year, so does the amount of medication prescribed to adolescents. Dr. Kathleen Kantak thinks this could be the reason why many ADHD kids develop cocaine habits later in life.

Kantak, a professor of psychology at Boston University, has conducted a study based on previous clinical trials that showed that one in five adolescent ADHD patients develop cocaine habits in their adult lives. She wanted to look at why adolescents who are prescribed ADHD medications like Ritalin and Strattera, have a higher chance of becoming addicted to cocaine in adulthood.

Kantak’s study examined three different types of rats: spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR) which exhibit similar symptoms to adolescents with ADHD, inbred Wistar-Kyoto (WKY) rats, and outbred Wistar rats. Neither of the Wistar rats showed signs of ADHD and served as Kantak’s control groups.

After observing all three groups’ normal behavior, rats from each group were given either Ritalin, Stattera, or no drugs at all. After the rats’ adolescence was over, they were all taken off the medication. Next, each adult rat was implanted with a catheter through which, at the push of a lever, cocaine could be self-administered at will.

The team observed that the SHR rats, regardless of their medication history, developed a cocaine habit faster than either of the other two types of rats. Additionally, the SHR rats who were given Ritalin as adolescents were more inclined toward higher usage of cocaine than the SHR rats who were not medicated with Ritalin.

Kantak’s conclusion? Rats who exhibited signs of ADHD as adolescents and were given Ritalin as treatment, were more inclined to develop an addiction to cocaine as adults.

In an interesting turn of events, Kantak’s team also found that the WKY rats who received Strattera were quicker to pick up a cocaine habit than those that never took the drug.

The conclusions drawn by the team, according to Kantak, are twofold. “If they’re an adolescent getting a stimulant medication, and they’re properly diagnosed, the medication may put them at increased risk [for adult cocaine risk],” she said in a report. “If they’re misdiagnosed, and get Strattera, this may also be putting them at greater risk… of acquiring an addiction to cocaine.”

The study seems to suggest that adolescents who are diagnosed with ADHD should be given Straterra, rather than Ritalin as treatment, because it is a non stimulant, and those who do not have a definitive diagnosis should avoid taking the medication in order to avoid the increased risk developing a cocaine habit later in life.

This also brings into question the high numbers of ADHD diagnoses in the past few years, as it is possible that over-diagnosis of adolescents may result in increased cocaine addicted adults in the future.