Ritalin boosts learning by increasing brain plasticity

March 7, 2010, University of California - San Francisco

Doctors treat millions of children with Ritalin every year to improve their ability to focus on tasks, but scientists now report that Ritalin also directly enhances the speed of learning.

In animal research, the scientists showed for the first time that Ritalin boosts both of these by increasing the activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine deep inside the brain. Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers neurons use to communicate with each other. They release the molecule, which then docks onto receptors of other neurons. The research demonstrated that one type of dopamine receptor aids the ability to focus, and another type improves the learning itself.

The scientists also established that Ritalin produces these effects by enhancing brain plasticity - strengthening communication between neurons where they meet at the synapse. Research in this field has accelerated as scientists have recognized that our brains can continue to form new connections - remain plastic - throughout life.

"Since we now know that Ritalin improves behavior through two specific types of neurotransmitter receptors, the finding could help in the development of better targeted drugs, with fewer side effects, to increase focus and learning," said Antonello Bonci, MD, principal investigator at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center and professor of neurology at UCSF. The Gallo Center is affiliated with the UCSF Department of Neurology.

Bonci is co-senior author of the paper, which will be published online in "" on Sunday, March 7, 2010.

Bonci and his colleagues showed that Ritalin's therapeutic action takes place in a brain region called the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of neurons known to be critical for learning and .

"We found that a dopamine receptor, known as the D2 receptor, controls the ability to stay focused on a task - the well-known benefit of Ritalin," said Patricia Janak, PhD, co-senior author on the paper. "But we also discovered that another dopamine receptor, D1, underlies learning efficiency."

Janak is a principal investigator at the Gallo Center and a UCSF associate professor of neurology. Lead author of the paper is Kay M. Tye, PhD, a postdoctoral scientist at the Gallo Center when the research was carried out.

The research assessed the ability of rats to learn that they could get a sugar water reward when they received a signal - a flash of light and a sound. The scientists compared the behavior of animals receiving Ritalin with those that did not receive it, and found those receiving Ritalin learned much better.

However, they also found that if they blocked the dopamine D1 receptors with drugs, Ritalin was unable to enhance learning. And if they blocked D2 receptors, Ritalin failed to improve focus. The experiments established the distinct role of each of the in enabling Ritalin to enhance cognitive performance.

In addition, animals that performed better after Ritalin treatment showed enhanced synaptic plasticity in the amygdala. Enhanced plasticity is essentially increased efficiency of neural transmission. The researchers confirmed this by measuring electrical activity in neurons in the after Ritalin treatment.

The research confirmed that learning and focus were enhanced when Ritalin was administered to animals in doses comparable to those used therapeutically in children.

"Although Ritalin is so frequently prescribed, it induces many brain changes, making it difficult to identify which of those changes improve learning." said Kay Tye. "By identifying the brain mechanisms underlying Ritalin's behavioral enhancements, we can better understand the action of Ritalin as well as the properties governing ."

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Cesarean-born mice show altered patterns of brain development, study finds

October 15, 2018
Cesarean-born mice show altered patterns of cell death across the brain, exhibiting greater nerve cell death than vaginally delivered mice in at least one brain area, a finding by Georgia State University researchers that ...

Scientists chase mystery of how dogs process words

October 15, 2018
When some dogs hear their owners say "squirrel," they perk up, become agitated. They may even run to a window and look out of it. But what does the word mean to the dog? Does it mean, "Pay attention, something is happening?" ...

Study points to possible new therapy for hearing loss

October 15, 2018
Researchers have taken an important step toward what may become a new approach to restore hearing loss. In a new study, out today in the European Journal of Neuroscience, scientists have been able to regrow the sensory hair ...

Sugar, a 'sweet' tool to understand brain injuries

October 15, 2018
Australian researchers have developed ground-breaking new technology which could prove crucial in treating brain injuries and have multiple other applications, including testing the success of cancer therapies.

Scientists examine how neuropathic pain responds to Metformin

October 15, 2018
Scientists seeking an effective treatment for one type of chronic pain believe a ubiquitous, generic diabetes medication might solve both the discomfort and the mental deficits that go with the pain.

Abnormal vision in childhood can affect brain functions

October 13, 2018
A research team has discovered that abnormal vision in childhood can affect the development of higher-level brain areas responsible for things such as attention.

16 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

JNS_1thought
not rated yet Mar 07, 2010
Thanx A Bunch For This Post.
[Personal Errors]

But Why Mention Ritalin (ProductName) and Not The Substance?
taohansen
not rated yet Mar 07, 2010
If Modafinil, like Methylphenidate, increases the release of dopamine in the brain, could the findings of this study perhaps also apply to Modafinil? I know this is simplistic reasoning: be gentle.
pcatiprodotnet
not rated yet Mar 07, 2010
Anti-depressants (which increase dopamine) also seem to do this, at least in the visual cortex (after clicking, also see the "Related Stories")...
http://www.physor...797.html
Arthur_Zombie
5 / 5 (4) Mar 07, 2010
acarrilho,

Strange notion, indeed. If you have a definition of "kid" that you think would enhance the neuroscientist's grasp on establishing baselines to appropriately diagnose deviations from normal brain states, by all means, relay the information.

Otherwise, the scientists and doctors will work off of currently available baselines to diagnose dopamine deficits. And, in this case, it follows that kids aren't 'kids' when they have a dopamine deficit (as defined by the baseline), which impairs proper functioning of the brain.
freydawg56
Mar 08, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
poof
1 / 5 (3) Mar 08, 2010
Drugging kids who otherwise are simply needing lots of parental/educational attention and exercise (and a severe reduction of sugar), is sick.

So the real question here, is how much did big pharma pay off physorg to post their propaganda? All this is, is a well funded excuse to justify the psuedo-scientific field of psychology's sick obsession with "normal". Psychologists who deal drugs to children who dont have serious medical issues should be jailed along side playground dealers and child molesters.
Bob_Kob
5 / 5 (2) Mar 08, 2010
Ok then leave the kids out of it and sign me up! I want some brain boosting snap.
Bob_Dobbs
3 / 5 (2) Mar 08, 2010
Not trying to make any value judgements about the use/non-use of these substances, but students under pressure in schools are already aware about the 'enhancement' that comes with their use. Some students now feel at a disadvantage if they do not have them. Can anyone tell me if a normal baseline student uses something like Modafinil, how much if any of an advantage would that student have over a normal baseline dopamine student?
Nik_2213
4.3 / 5 (3) Mar 08, 2010
If this increases general neural plasticity, it might be beneficial for eg stroke recovery.

And what about treating dementia ??

Now, they're *killer* apps...

Uh, would it also help me learn a CAD package ? I'm up against the 'Old Dog / New Tricks' wall, here...
ralph_wiggum
4.3 / 5 (3) Mar 08, 2010
Hi supernintendo Chalmers! I'm learnding! Send moar drugs pleez.
winthrom
5 / 5 (2) Mar 08, 2010
How would this work for children with severe learning deficit problems?
gcouger
4.5 / 5 (2) Mar 08, 2010
They use Ritalin by name as that's what they used in the study. It probably applies to some degree to other amphetamines. But making the jump Modafinil such as Provigil and Nuvigil and even all amphetamines particularly the generic anphdimenes is not a sure thing. Generics are always risky when used for off label use as they only have to structurally match 80% of the structure of the brand name.

I have ADHD as do members of my family. We didn't need drugs for school or college. That's not true for everyone. Lay prescribing by teachers of ADHD drugs to tame boys to endure increasingly boring classes is way over done.

I hear students prefer Provigil and Adderall with generic Adderall giving the most bang for the buck. Over prescribing ADHD drugs makes a ready supply for the enhanced learning market. The wholesale prescription of these drugs lowers everyone's inhibition to using them.
rdza
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 08, 2010
In related news, students who smoked crystal on the morning of a test scored higher then their sober counterparts.
Speed kills.
mosaicofminds
not rated yet Mar 09, 2010
Did the rats have attention problems before they got Ritalin? Otherwise, to the extent that animal models are valid, you're really learning what happens to people without ADD when they take Ritalin.
Javinator
5 / 5 (1) Mar 11, 2010
What I think is outdated is this competitive environment that pits children against each other. Seriously outdated...


When are "children" pitted against each other?

The only time I ever had competition is school was trying to get into postsecondary (limited amount of space at the schools) and trying to get a job afterwards (limited number of positions available to apply for).

It's not "outdated" that when lots of people want the same thing and there are a limited number of spaces that there is competition for it.
blazingspark
not rated yet Apr 14, 2010
If this increases general neural plasticity, it might be beneficial for eg stroke recovery.

And what about treating dementia ??
The only problem with that is that Ritalin can be tough on the heart/Cardiovascular System and affects blood pressure etc.. It would be too risky for elderly and bad for stroke patients. There are certain types of antidepressants (e.g. Prozac) that stimulate neurogenesis. They help.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.