Understanding ADHD Medication

By Eileen Bailey

No one knows exactly where ADHD comes from.  No one knows what causes it, although, through many years of research, it is generally accepted that it is hereditary in families. It is also accepted that neurotransmitters in the brain are involved.  The largest impact seems to come from dopamine and norepinephrine. 

Stimulant medications are thought to be effective because they work to increase dopamine.  This neurotransmitter is produced in our body naturally and helps to control the information between our frontal lobe and other parts of the brain.  It is thought that reduced dopamine in the frontal lobe is at least partially responsible for problems with attention, memory and problem solving.  It is also thought to contribute to how we interpret rewards.

All of the commonly prescribed medications reduce symptoms of ADHD.  Hyperactivity is decreased and inattention and impulsiveness is decreased.  In many people, secondary symptoms are also improved.  Abilities such as impulse control, planning, goal setting, organization and memory are increased.  Additionally, people feel more comfortable in social situations and their physical coordination is improved. 

ADHD medications are available in different forms.  Most medications come in both short acting (4 to 8 hours) and extended release (12 hours).  Relief from symptoms is temporary and lasts only as long as the medication.  Recent research has found that low doses of medication will improve function, while higher doses may decrease or impair function.  Doctors, therefore, will begin medication at low doses and only increase when improvement is not seen.

Finding the right medication is sometimes a matter of trial and error.  Different people will react differently to medications.  While some may find great improvement with Ritalin or Concerta, others may find these medications do not work well, but Strattera helps their symptoms.  Additionally, finding the correct dosage may take some time. 

Keeping track of your symptoms and charting improvement will help you to work with your doctor in determining the right medication and the right dosage.  It is important that you do not make changes to your medication without first discussing with your physician.


Cannon, C.M. (2004, July). Is Dopamine Required for Natural Reward?. from Physiology & Behavior, Volume 81, Issue 5 Web site: ciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T0P-4CRW4BX-3&_coverDate=07%2F31%2F2004&_alid=473171654&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_qd=1&_cdi=4868&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=8fe40f5eb34ea1ac3f1d0aaf8a17380f

Swanson, James (2003). Role of Executive Function in ADHD. from Department of Pediatrics, University of California Web site: http://www.psychiatrist.com/pcc/pccpdf/v05s08/v64s1407.pdf

Strock, Margaret (2003). Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Retrieved May 28, 2007, from National Institute of Mental Health Web site: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/adhd.cfm#treat

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