Ritalin boosts learning by increasing brain plasticity

Mar 07, 2010

Doctors treat millions of children with Ritalin every year to improve their ability to focus on tasks, but scientists now report that Ritalin also directly enhances the speed of learning.

In animal research, the scientists showed for the first time that Ritalin boosts both of these by increasing the activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine deep inside the brain. Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers neurons use to communicate with each other. They release the molecule, which then docks onto receptors of other neurons. The research demonstrated that one type of dopamine receptor aids the ability to focus, and another type improves the learning itself.

The scientists also established that Ritalin produces these effects by enhancing brain plasticity - strengthening communication between neurons where they meet at the synapse. Research in this field has accelerated as scientists have recognized that our brains can continue to form new connections - remain plastic - throughout life.

"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," said Antonello Bonci, MD, principal investigator at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center and professor of neurology at UCSF. The Gallo Center is affiliated with the UCSF Department of Neurology.

Bonci is co-senior author of the paper, which will be published online in "" on Sunday, March 7, 2010.

Bonci and his colleagues showed that Ritalin's therapeutic action takes place in a brain region called the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of neurons known to be critical for learning and .

"We found that a dopamine receptor, known as the D2 receptor, controls the ability to stay focused on a task - the well-known benefit of Ritalin," said Patricia Janak, PhD, co-senior author on the paper. "But we also discovered that another dopamine receptor, D1, underlies learning efficiency."

Janak is a principal investigator at the Gallo Center and a UCSF associate professor of neurology. Lead author of the paper is Kay M. Tye, PhD, a postdoctoral scientist at the Gallo Center when the research was carried out.

The research assessed the ability of rats to learn that they could get a sugar water reward when they received a signal - a flash of light and a sound. The scientists compared the behavior of animals receiving Ritalin with those that did not receive it, and found those receiving Ritalin learned much better.

However, they also found that if they blocked the dopamine D1 receptors with drugs, Ritalin was unable to enhance learning. And if they blocked D2 receptors, Ritalin failed to improve focus. The experiments established the distinct role of each of the in enabling Ritalin to enhance cognitive performance.

In addition, animals that performed better after Ritalin treatment showed enhanced synaptic plasticity in the amygdala. Enhanced plasticity is essentially increased efficiency of neural transmission. The researchers confirmed this by measuring electrical activity in neurons in the after Ritalin treatment.

The research confirmed that learning and focus were enhanced when Ritalin was administered to animals in doses comparable to those used therapeutically in children.

"Although Ritalin is so frequently prescribed, it induces many brain changes, making it difficult to identify which of those changes improve learning." said Kay Tye. "By identifying the brain mechanisms underlying Ritalin's behavioral enhancements, we can better understand the action of Ritalin as well as the properties governing ."

Explore further: Imaging study reveals white-matter deficits in users of codeine-containing cough syrups

Provided by University of California - San Francisco

4.8 /5 (26 votes)

Related Stories

Adult ADHD linked with dopamine levels

Aug 09, 2007

Adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder have a reduced response to the drug Ritalin, U.S. government scientists have found.

Pediatric Ritalin may affect young brains

Jul 18, 2007

U.S. medical researchers have discovered use of the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder drug Ritalin by young children might affect their brains.

Ritalin may cause changes in the brain’s reward areas

Feb 04, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- A common treatment for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, prescribed millions of times a year, may change the brain in the same ways that cocaine does, a new study in mice suggests. Research from Rockefeller ...

Alleviating the fear of falling

Jul 28, 2008

Getting old isn't just about body aches and pains. As we get older, our risk of falling greatly increases. Old bones don't heal like young ones, and for senior citizens, falls are a leading cause of death.

New adult brain cells may be central to lifelong learning

May 23, 2007

The steady formation of new brain cells in adults may represent more than merely a patching up of aging brains, a new study has shown. The new adult brain cells may serve to give the adult brain the same kind of learning ...

Meth addiction mechanism discovered

Apr 09, 2008

Researchers have identified, for the first time, long-term changes in the brain circuitry of methamphetamine-addicted mice that can explain why the craving of addiction is so stubborn and long-lived. The research could lead ...

Recommended for you

Common infections tied to some stroke risk in kids

16 hours ago

A new study suggests that colds and other minor infections may temporarily increase stroke risk in children. The study found that the risk of stroke was increased only within a three-day period between a ...

Celebrities in 'Ice Bucket Challenge' to fight disease

Aug 20, 2014

Steven Spielberg, Justin Bieber and Bill Gates are among many celebrities pouring buckets of ice water over their heads and donating to fight Lou Gehrig's disease, in a fundraising effort that has gone viral.

Study helps explain why elderly have trouble sleeping

Aug 20, 2014

As people grow older, they often have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, and tend to awaken too early in the morning. In individuals with Alzheimer's disease, this common and troubling symptom ...

Targeted brain training may help you multitask better

Aug 20, 2014

The area of the brain involved in multitasking and ways to train it have been identified by a research team at the IUGM Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal and the University of Montreal.

User comments : 23

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

JNS_1thought
not rated yet Mar 07, 2010
Thanx A Bunch For This Post.
[Personal Errors]

But Why Mention Ritalin (ProductName) and Not The Substance?
NeptuneAD
not rated yet Mar 07, 2010
Maybe to make it more obvious what they are talking about, after all if they mentioned Methylphenidate then as soon as I seen that, I would have wiki'd it before I read the rest of the article.
taohansen
not rated yet Mar 07, 2010
If Modafinil, like Methylphenidate, increases the release of dopamine in the brain, could the findings of this study perhaps also apply to Modafinil? I know this is simplistic reasoning: be gentle.
pcatiprodotnet
not rated yet Mar 07, 2010
Anti-depressants (which increase dopamine) also seem to do this, at least in the visual cortex (after clicking, also see the "Related Stories")...
http://www.physor...797.html
acarrilho
Mar 07, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Arthur_Zombie
5 / 5 (4) Mar 07, 2010
acarrilho,

Strange notion, indeed. If you have a definition of "kid" that you think would enhance the neuroscientist's grasp on establishing baselines to appropriately diagnose deviations from normal brain states, by all means, relay the information.

Otherwise, the scientists and doctors will work off of currently available baselines to diagnose dopamine deficits. And, in this case, it follows that kids aren't 'kids' when they have a dopamine deficit (as defined by the baseline), which impairs proper functioning of the brain.
Bloodoflamb
4.7 / 5 (3) Mar 07, 2010
All I will say is that I appreciate my doctor's attempts to assuage the problems I had in terms of control issues when I was younger. Though I suspect that the massive energy could have been focused elsewhere instead of deadened. And I could possibly have been the better for it. Who knows? I will say that the medication did help my, admittedly, out of control behavior, but maybe there could have been another solution.
acarrilho
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 07, 2010
Arthur_Zombie,

Chemical enhancement of children's learning abilities so they can satisfy their parents' expectations is child abuse. By that rationale, a parent that is interested in developing the physical side of the child is entitled to use chemical enhancements as well, to that purpose, and you might not agree with it.
NeptuneAD
3.5 / 5 (2) Mar 07, 2010
I sure wish I had been diagnosed early, it would have saved a lot of heartache for my parents.

However I do recognise as acarrilho said, that if it is just used as an excuse to satisfy expectations it is child abuse, but that is not a reason to withdraw its use, otherwise there wouldn't be very many drugs left on the market.
acarrilho
2.5 / 5 (4) Mar 07, 2010
NeptuneAD,

From my perspective, a lot of heartache from well-intended parents, comes from an education system that might erroneously assume children at a very young age are ready to learn in ways that require a level of attention that just MIGHT be unnatural, as opposed to the expected norm. I just don't think young children should be expected to learn tasks that require too much attention so early on. If their brains aren't wired that way, it could be because other processes take precedence at that age.
NeptuneAD
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 07, 2010
I completely agree, but from a different angle.

Each child is unique and as such, should be taught a curriculum that is unique to them, the problem is we just don't know enough about it to cater to the masses, it is hard enough to work out what is best for one child let alone a whole school full.
Rynox77
4 / 5 (1) Mar 07, 2010
I completely agree, but from a different angle.

Each child is unique and as such, should be taught a curriculum that is unique to them, the problem is we just don't know enough about it to cater to the masses, it is hard enough to work out what is best for one child let alone a whole school full.

Well that's great in theory (and I agree with you), but in practice Mitch Daniels (our brilliant Governor) is cutting an already bare-bones K-12 budget. I don't mean to make this into a political argument, because honestly the politics don't matter: The funding does not exist to teach children in this way.
freydawg56
Mar 08, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
poof
1 / 5 (3) Mar 08, 2010
Drugging kids who otherwise are simply needing lots of parental/educational attention and exercise (and a severe reduction of sugar), is sick.

So the real question here, is how much did big pharma pay off physorg to post their propaganda? All this is, is a well funded excuse to justify the psuedo-scientific field of psychology's sick obsession with "normal". Psychologists who deal drugs to children who dont have serious medical issues should be jailed along side playground dealers and child molesters.
Bob_Kob
5 / 5 (2) Mar 08, 2010
Ok then leave the kids out of it and sign me up! I want some brain boosting snap.
Bob_Dobbs
3 / 5 (2) Mar 08, 2010
Not trying to make any value judgements about the use/non-use of these substances, but students under pressure in schools are already aware about the 'enhancement' that comes with their use. Some students now feel at a disadvantage if they do not have them. Can anyone tell me if a normal baseline student uses something like Modafinil, how much if any of an advantage would that student have over a normal baseline dopamine student?
Nik_2213
4.3 / 5 (3) Mar 08, 2010
If this increases general neural plasticity, it might be beneficial for eg stroke recovery.

And what about treating dementia ??

Now, they're *killer* apps...

Uh, would it also help me learn a CAD package ? I'm up against the 'Old Dog / New Tricks' wall, here...
acarrilho
3 / 5 (5) Mar 08, 2010
Nik_2213,

Who's the "old dog", exactly? Someone that objects to the use of chemical enhancement for purposes not directly related to the health of the child? Do you think it's an outdated concept? What I think is outdated is this competitive environment that pits children against each other. Seriously outdated...
ralph_wiggum
4.3 / 5 (3) Mar 08, 2010
Hi supernintendo Chalmers! I'm learnding! Send moar drugs pleez.
winthrom
5 / 5 (2) Mar 08, 2010
How would this work for children with severe learning deficit problems?
gcouger
4.5 / 5 (2) Mar 08, 2010
They use Ritalin by name as that's what they used in the study. It probably applies to some degree to other amphetamines. But making the jump Modafinil such as Provigil and Nuvigil and even all amphetamines particularly the generic anphdimenes is not a sure thing. Generics are always risky when used for off label use as they only have to structurally match 80% of the structure of the brand name.

I have ADHD as do members of my family. We didn't need drugs for school or college. That's not true for everyone. Lay prescribing by teachers of ADHD drugs to tame boys to endure increasingly boring classes is way over done.

I hear students prefer Provigil and Adderall with generic Adderall giving the most bang for the buck. Over prescribing ADHD drugs makes a ready supply for the enhanced learning market. The wholesale prescription of these drugs lowers everyone's inhibition to using them.
rdza
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 08, 2010
In related news, students who smoked crystal on the morning of a test scored higher then their sober counterparts.
Speed kills.
mosaicofminds
not rated yet Mar 09, 2010
Did the rats have attention problems before they got Ritalin? Otherwise, to the extent that animal models are valid, you're really learning what happens to people without ADD when they take Ritalin.
Javinator
5 / 5 (1) Mar 11, 2010
What I think is outdated is this competitive environment that pits children against each other. Seriously outdated...


When are "children" pitted against each other?

The only time I ever had competition is school was trying to get into postsecondary (limited amount of space at the schools) and trying to get a job afterwards (limited number of positions available to apply for).

It's not "outdated" that when lots of people want the same thing and there are a limited number of spaces that there is competition for it.
blazingspark
not rated yet Apr 14, 2010
If this increases general neural plasticity, it might be beneficial for eg stroke recovery.

And what about treating dementia ??
The only problem with that is that Ritalin can be tough on the heart/Cardiovascular System and affects blood pressure etc.. It would be too risky for elderly and bad for stroke patients. There are certain types of antidepressants (e.g. Prozac) that stimulate neurogenesis. They help.