Your Brain on Stimulants, Part 1: How Stimulants Work

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Black sign with white letters "ADHD" on wood-colored easel

Stimulants are drugs that increase alertness, attention, and energy by raising the levels of key chemicals in the brain and other parts of the body. This may be helpful for people with certain health conditions, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

It’s estimated that more than 10 percent of teens have been diagnosed with ADHD.  For them, ADHD can make it difficult to complete schoolwork or other tasks.

If someone with ADHD has difficulty paying attention, how can something called a stimulant help? The reason is that stimulants increase the amount of a chemical needed to help a person stay focused.

Research by NIDA’s Dr. Nora Volkow found that the symptoms of ADHD are associated with having lower levels of dopamine in the brain. Prescription stimulants slowly increase the level of dopamine, similar to the way it’s naturally produced in the brain. A doctor will usually prescribe a low dose (amount) of a stimulant and increase it gradually if necessary.

Prescription stimulants can also have some unpleasant side effects: fatigue, anxiety, depression, and raising a person’s blood pressure, rate of breathing, and heart rate. Misusing prescription stimulants can also lead to stimulant use disorders—but people with ADHD who use them as prescribed are not at the same risk.

In our next post, we’ll look at other types of stimulants, and when they may pose a risk for addiction.

Read Part 2 of this series here!

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