Ritalin, Amphetamines, and Cocaine
Ritalin (generic name methylphenidate) is an amphetamine-like central nervous system stimulant used for children and adults with ADHD, and is also used to treat narcolepsy. Ritalin or methylphenidate is not the only type of drug used for ADHD, somewhat similar to an amphetamine in its effect, but different in its mechanism (See:
Ritalin is similar in the way its mechanism to SSRI antidepressants. SSRIs (i.e. Prozac, Zoloft, etc.) work by blocking the reuptake of serotonin by the neurons or brain cells, leaving more in the brain itself, or in the gap between the neurons. Ritalin works similarly but acts on the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine, preventing their reabsorption into the neurons, and keeping them active in the brain.
Amphetamines, including popular ADHD drugs such as Adderall or Concerta, work by increasing the amount of these same neurotransmitters in the brain. Some drugs for ADHD also prolong the action time of these neurotransmitters.
Cocaine works similarly to Ritalin (methylphenidate) in that it blocks the reabsorption of the neurotransmitter dopamine by the neurons, thus keeping more dopamine active in the gap (synapse) between the neurons. This results in a pleasurable affect.
Ritalin and cocaine are similar in structure, except that Ritalin is taken orally, which allows a more gradual absorption into the blood stream. Ritalin also depart from the body slowly, which makes it less addicting.
It could still be said, however, that Ritalin and cocaine belong to the same family of drugs. Though there is no pleasurable brain "rush" felt with stimulants as with cocaine, and therefore it is less of addicting, Ritalin is still the 4th most widely abused street drug.
History of Ritalin
Methylphenidate was first created in the lab in 1944. The formula was modified and improved, and was tested on humans in 1954, final released in 1957 by Ciba Pharmaceutical Company for chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, narcolepsy, and other pharmaceutical uses in the 1950s and 1960s, including to counteract symptoms associated with barbiturate overdose. Around 1960 it was included in a tonic designed to improve mood and vitality, consisting of methylphenidate, hormones and vitamins, and marketed as “Ritonic” (Center for Drug Abuse Research).
What is now referred to as ADHD was known as “hyperkinetic syndrome” in the 1960s; methylphenidate began to be used for treating hyperkinetic syndrome, then ADHD from the 1960s, with steadily increased usage in the 1970s and 1980s. Use of Ritalin, however, skyrocketed 500 percent in the 1990s, with the U.S. at the lead of consumption.
What is ADHD?
Some of the symptoms of ADHD
or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are difficulty sitting still, talking excessively in class (for children), somewhat disruptive behavior, and inability to focus. When these symptoms become excessive and disruptive, as well as persistent — that is, it is an ongoing problem for several months or more — it can be classified as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
. ADD or Attention Deficit Disorder was the term most commonly used some years ago.
There are a number of different forms of ADHD
, but there are basically three main categories: with hyperactivity, without hyperactivity, and the combined type. (See What Causes ADHD
by Joel Nigg, PhD from the University of Michigan, 2006, for a more detailed explanation).
Ritalin and Cocaine – How They are Similar and Different
Ritalin (methylphenidate) has chemical properties and actions similar to cocaine. They react with the same basic chemical structures in the brain, and stimulate the mind by elevating the level of dopamine in much the same way. The neurotransmitter involved in the addictive head rush of cocaine is dopamine, the same neurotransmitter that is elevated, in the same way, by Ritalin or any other form of methylphenidate.
Neurologist Dr. Russell Barkley, a leading authority in the field of ADHD, explains concerning the methylphenidate-cocaine comparison that while cocaine and stimulants share the same chemical properties, cocaine is snorted, and finds its way rapidly into the bloodstream and brain, producing, not only stimulating effects, but also a head rush that becomes very addictive. The intense effects of cocaine dissipate in a matter of approximately 20 minutes.
Stimulant medications, on the other hand, are released gradually when taken orally, so while the dopamine level is raised in the brain, it is done so more gently, and therefore lacks the usual euphoric head rush or high that results from taking cocaine (Frontline interview. 2001). If you were to say that stimulants were time-released that might be closer to the mark.
A 1995 study by State University of New York concluded that even when Ritalin was taken for the purpose of reaching the level of a high, its properties were less addicting than that of cocaine because it discharged from the brain more gradually (90 minutes as opposed to 20 minutes) (Volkow, et al. 1995).
The main difference between the two drugs is that Ritalin is taken as a pill that is gradually released, whereas cocaine is snorted, entering the brain more directly. If Ritalin were snorted or injected, it might become as addictive as cocaine (Barkley, R. 2001). (Interestingly, at one time in U.S. history, cocaine was obtained legally at pharmacies. This practice ended in December, 1914 with the Harrison anti-narcotics Act. It was also included in the original formula for Coca-Cola, from which the word “Coca” is derived, in the late 1800s).
Is Ritalin “kiddy cocaine” as some claim? Yes and no.
While, there are enough similarities between Ritalin and cocaine that nickname for Ritalin “kiddie cocaine” has some validity, taking Ritalin as prescribed does not result in a pleasurable sensation and is not addictive in the way that use of cocaine is, though both operate by blocking the reuptake of dopamine by the brain neurons and thereby raising the level of dopamine in the brain and between the synapses (gaps) of the brain cell neurons.
Comparing and Contrasting Psychiatric Drugs with Coca, Cocaine, or Antibiotics
Indians in Peru have long used coca, the leaf which when processed produces cocaine (by chewing the coca leaves) as a performance-enhancer and stimulant to help them in day-to-day tasks that require endurance and energy. Like Ritalin, chewing coca leaves is stimulating to the central nervous system, but does not produce the pleasurable euphoria that the psychoactive alkaloid cocaine, derived from the same plant leaf, produces.
Through the early 1900s, cocaine was added to Coca-Cola, from which the name “Coca” is derived, though shortly before the Harrison Anti-Narcotic Act, the practice was abandoned. (Cocaine.org. 1998).
The level of stimulation provided by stimulants like Ritalin (used today for ADHD) might be comparable to that of chewing a single coca leaf or that of drinking Coca-Cola with added cocaine. It would not produce a euphoria or high, but would provide stimulation to the central nervous system.
Stimulants are used to help children concentrate or focus better. This affect is only, however, for the time that the stimulant is actually in the system. Unlike an antibiotic that is taken temporarily to kill an invasive organism and affect a cure, stimulants stop working once they dissipate from the body and are often taken by children for many years rather than weeks, as is the case for antibiotics.
Stimulant Drugs such as Ritalin Treat Symptoms, not the Disorder
Also, while an antibiotic actually cures the disease or destroys the invasive microorganism it targets, stimulants do not in any way cure ADHD; rather, they are an aid only in controlling symptoms. So the target is not the underlying problem but the symptoms.
Stimulants and most drugs used in psychiatry
are symptom-oriented. Psychiatric drugs
, in general are more or less analgesic, like the effect that aspirin has on pain. The aspirin doesn't cure the disease, but it just dulls the pain, making it less noticeable. It is similar with medicines for ADHD
or any other psychiatric disorder
. The medicines treat symptoms but not the disorder.
The Side Effects of Ritalin
nervousness and insomnia
, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, palpitations, headaches, changes in heart rate and blood pressure (usually elevation of both, but occasionally depression), skin rashes and itching, abdominal pain, weight loss, and digestive problems, toxic psychosis, psychotic episodes, drug-dependence syndrome, and severe depression
loss of appetite (may cause serious malnutrition), tremors and muscle twitching, fevers, convulsions and headaches (may be severe), irregular heartbeat and respirations (may be profound and life-threatening), anxiety
, restlessness, paranoia, hallucinations and delusions, excessive repetition of movements and meaningless tasks, and formication (sensation of bugs or worms crawling under the skin).
Partnership for a Drug-Free America
Conclusion of Ritalin and Cocaine
With the foregoing in mind, when treating ADHD, we conclude that Ritalin (methyphenidate) or amphetamines (drugs such as Adderall, Concerta and others commonly used in treating ADHD) should be used only as an absolutely last resort, if at all, rather than as a front-line form of treatment. Parents should exhaust all possible avenues of self-help and professional treatment options rather than casually treat themselves or their children with stimulant medications.
Ritalin (methyphenidate) - Cocaine References
1. Amphetamines. Amphetamines.com. Retrieved from the Internet January 10, 2016. http://amphetamines.com/amphetamines_info/
2. Barkley, R. (2001). Medicating Kids. Interview. Frontline, PBS
3. How Does Cocaine Produce Its Effects? (2010, September). The National Institute on Drug Abuse
4. Nigg, J. (2006). What Causes ADHD? Understanding What Goes Wrong and Why
New York: Guilford Press.
5. Pemberton, J. (1998, July). Cocaine Org.
6. Ratey, J. Hallowell, E., (1995). Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood.
7. Ritalin. Center for Drug Abuse Research
. Retrieved from the Internet January 10, 2016. http://www.cesar.umd.edu/cesar/drugs/ritalin.asp
8. Ritalin. Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Retrieved from the Internet July, 2009. http://www.drugfree.org/Portal/Drug_guide/Ritalin
9. Volkow, N., Ding, Y., Fowler J., Wang, G., Logan, J., Gatley, J., Dewey, S., Ashby, C., Liebermann, J., Hitzemann, R. Medical Department, State University of New York, Stony Brook. (1995, June).
Is methylphenidate like cocaine? Studies on their pharmacokinetics and distribution in the human brain. PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1995 Jun; 52(6): 456-63. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?Db=pubmed&Cmd=ShowDetailView&TermToSearch=7771915
* Ritalin is a registered trademark of Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. Manufactured for: Alliant Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
The United States of Adderall
, by Lawrence Diller, M.D.,
September 9, 2011. (Off-site link)
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