How Ritalin Works in the Brain: With a One-Two Dopamine Punch

By Smriti Rao | March 9, 2010 5:25 pm

ritalinCollege students holed up in the library or cramming for an exam have always relied on stimulants like coffee, but recently they’ve been increasingly turning to the off-label use of drugs like Ritalin and Modafinil to help them stay focused. Now scientists have found how Ritalin, a drug normally prescribed for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), helps boost learning.

In a new study of rats published online in Nature Neuroscience, scientists found that Ritalin appears to boost both attention and enhance the speed of learning by increasing the activity of the chemical messenger dopamine [Technology Review]. The study also found that one type of dopamine receptor aids the ability to focus, and another type improves the learning itself [DNA].

In their study, scientists observed that rats on Ritalin learned faster than those not given the drug; the Ritalin-drugged rats understood more quickly that a flash of light and sound meant sugary treats for them. However, when the researchers used drugs to block the dopamine D1 receptors in the rats’ brains, they found Ritalin did not aid learning speed. When another dopamine receptor, D2, was blocked, the drug failed to improve focus. The scientists concluded that both receptors play a distinct role in helping Ritalin improve cognitive performance. Said lead researcher Antonello Bonci: “Since we now know that Ritalin improves behavior through two specific types of neurotransmitter receptors, the finding could help in the development of better targeted drugs, with fewer side effects, to increase focus and learning” [Technology Review].

The researchers also observed that the drug strengthened the connections between nerve cells in the brain region called the amygdala, which plays an important role in learning and emotional memory. Strengthened connections increase the efficiency of neural transmissions, which allows for faster learning.

The findings come at a time when doctors are paying more attention to the trend of using pharmaceuticals as “smart pills.” Some doctors have warned that drugs like Ritalin and Modafinil shouldn’t be abused to get a “brain boost” ahead of exams or in stressful situations, while other scientists have provocatively suggested that such medications should be available to anyone who wants a cognitive pick-me-up.

Related Content:
80beats: Why ADHD Kids Have Trouble Doing Homework: No Payoff
80beats: Stay-Awake Drug Popular With College Kids Has Addictive Potential
80beats: Prescribe Ritalin to Everyone, Provocative Essay Suggests
80beats: Herbal Remedy Doesn’t Help Kids With Attention Deficit Disorder

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • Jerome Zoser NeaL


  • Jerome Zoser NeaL


  • Old Gringo Stan

    ….at 74, (elect.eng.) if I am called back to work (I love my work and the money doesn’t hurt) I am wondering if Ritalin will help me grasp a new program faster……hmmmm….seems everything in engineering these days involves learning new programs

  • shakageek

    ritalin should never be allowed to pass the law as over the counter drug…this would ruin the lives of many people and kids out there!

  • Derek

    i was a kid that was place on ritilin and dexedrine and now i got permament anxiety ocd and depression those drugs make you so anti soical you don’t get the social skills you need too survive in this world i ended up droping outta school any’s ways so if your reading this and your thinking about putting your kids on drugs don’t do it, they are used too reduce hyperactivity we need are activitiy too survive…. a animal put on ritilin probably wouldnt be able too thrive in his evirerment what make you think your kid would…. it actually made learning more difficult for me….. i never had behavior problems untill after that… think about what your doing this is a crime those drugs are no better then meth or crack and they cause the same brain damage they are just used too shut kids up in school… i always grew up thinking there was something wrong with me when there was nothing don’t do this

  • Derek

    the goverment is bi polar… doing this for one they have a war on drugs….. then they put kids in school on drugs! wtf…. 2nd they have tv advertisement telling kids too be active…… but they prescribe drugs too reduce hyperactivity too kids…. its all about money and control get them hook when there young they will be easier too control….. don’t listen too these fools they will wreck your life

  • Derek

    then you’ll find your self on welfare for the rest of your life

  • Wally

    Having been on Ritalin for 12 years now. (Started at 17. ) I have to say, it has helped me and messed with my head. A sort of curse and blessing. I can see the benefits of short term use, but now my concentration has worsened, as for my memory, well it has been hit pretty bad. Besides that, it has really affected the relationships i have, or had.

    I don’t think i could function without it though. I’ve tried and i found myself either arrested or in hospital for injuring my friends, wife, and/or myself. and don’t get me started about work…

    So Derek, i get where your coming from. i guess i’m a product, or by-product.

  • Jess

    To Derick, the opposite, I am so much more social, confident and all of what I believe I could be. After being diagnosed with dyslexia, bipolar, skitso. When I take ritalin, it doesn’t appear I have it. Its the dopamine levels and that’s all it is, balance it out and it will be fine.


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