New concerns are emerging that drugs for kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can be overused and abused.

ADHD drugs such as Ritalin are in wide circulation. It’s estimated that between five per cent and 10 per cent of children in Canada have the disorder, which means they have trouble focussing and are often hyperactive or impulsive.

Dr. Edmund Higgins, a psychiatrist at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, is concerned that parents and teachers have a lower tolerance these days for mild behavioural problems, and that these drugs may be used too liberally. He wrote about this in the July 2009 issue of Scientific American.

In the U.S., prescribing of methylphenidate (brand names Ritalin or Concerta) and the amphetamine Adderall rose 12 per cent between 2000 and 2005. “Over the past 15 years,” writes Higgins, “doctors have been pinning the ADHD label on — and prescribing stimulants for — a rapidly rising number of patients, including those with moderate to mild inattention, some of whom … have a normal ability to focus.”

He writes about a child in Grade 6 whose mother came to him asking for Ritalin. But when he tested the child, he found an almost-normal ability to focus. Like any medication, the risks are not zero. Higgins points to a smattering of recent studies – mostly in animals — that show these drugs could have negative effects on the brain when kids become adults. These stimulants have a way of acting that is similar to cocaine. And, like cocaine, possible effects over the long term could be depressed mood, increased anxiety and cognitive defects.

There is also some evidence that these medications can stunt growth in children.

The vast majority of adults with ADHD also have another psychiatric illness such as anxiety disorder or drug addiction. Is that from stimulant use as children? The scientific jury is still out, but it’s possible, writes Higgins.

The article suggests keeping doses of stimulants as low as possible, and having doctors monitor blood levels to make sure doses are low. “Without these or similar measures, large numbers of people who regularly take stimulants may ultimately struggle with a new set of problems spawned by the treatments themselves,” he writes.

Another problem with Ritalin and similar stimulants is they are sometimes abused by young people and adults because they can provide a “high.” Ritalin abusers have been known to steal the drug or bully children into giving it up, according to a report from Alberta Health Services.

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