Does Your Child Need to Be on Medication?

Neurobiologist David Anderson is alarmed by the idea of drugging children to treat the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder–especially during adolescence, when changing levels of sex hormones and growth hormones are already having a dramatic impact on a teenager’s brain.

[Related: What Little Kids Need From Grownups]

He questions the long-term use of a drug that promotes a system like dopamine or serotonin. As he puts it: “You can’t take the kid off the drug after puberty and say, ‘Whoops, let’s go back and do puberty without the drug.’” Read on to learn how drugs like Adderall affect the brain–and why Anderson says that drug treatments should be a last resort in children with ADHD.

One in 10 American children is diagnosed with ADHD – but we still don’t understand the disorder. “There’s this traditional view that common brain disorders like ADHD, anxiety, and depression are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, as if the brain were some kind of chemical soup that just needed a little more salt,” says Anderson (TEDxCaltech talk: Your brain is more than a bag of chemicals).

Then there’s the emerging view, which is that ADHD and other common brain disorders are “actually disturbances in the neural circuits that mediate emotion, mood, and affect.” This distinction matters most when parents, doctors, and teachers are evaluating the pros and cons of behavioral, environmental, and medical treatment options for a growing child, since current drug treatment options act by globally changing brain chemistry.

“Many of the drugs that are taken for conditions like these were discovered by accident, not through an understanding of the underlying physiology of the disorder,” says Anderson. “It was just discovered that they work, and we don’t know how they work really or why they work.”

For children with ADHD, medication should be a last resort. The ADHD drug Adderall is a good example to consider. “Adderall is basically amphetamines, and it works by increasing the amount of dopamine that is released into the brain,” says Anderson.

The problem is, dopamine doesn’t have a single function, so to say that dopamine is involved in ADHD isn’t saying very much. “There are dopamine fibers in many regions of the brain, and around 10 different kinds of dopamine neurons in the brain, and most of those neurons will be affected by amphetamine, and those neurons may be doing many different things.” That’s why a medication like Adderall can have so many side effects.