Does Ritalin Improve Academic Performance?

While it began as a little known medication in the early 1960, an estimated 10 million U.S. kids a year now take Ritalin. Studies have shown that it helps 60 to 70 percent of kids focus and better manage their impulses. Often parents assume that these improvements lead to better learning. Intuitively, this makes sense. If your child is focusing on the work presented in class, then logic would dictate that he or she will also learn more. The question is, are parents correct in this assumption?

Research published on-line in the March 2010 edition of Nature Neuroscience suggests that they may be correct. Studying rats in the lab, these researchers were able to show that Ritalin not only improves the ability of rats to focus, it also improved their learning. The research assessed the ability of rats to learn that they could get sugar water as a reward for responding to a light or sound signal. The researchers noted that the boost to the neurotransmitter dopamine was likely responsible for this effect. They isolated two different dopamine receptors (D1 and D2) that account for the improved effects of attention on the one hand, and learning on the other. So you might conclude that Ritalin helps rats learn better and therefore people likely learn better as well. While the authors do not state this directly, the inference is clear - Ritalin may improve your child's learning.

Before you rush out to buy your child's higher grade point average from a pharmacy, you might want to consider the following. The latest research from Jeffery Epstein and his colleagues published in the February 2010 issue of the Archives of Paediatrics & Adolescent Medicine looked at whether  ADHD symptoms and functional impairment (e.g., achievement in reading writing and math; following directions, organizational skills, assignment completion) were significantly improved with the use of stimulant medications such as Ritalin.  The researchers were able to survey a large group of physicians and parents to find out if ADHD symptoms and functional impairments improved over the course of a year of treatment with stimulant medication. Close to 800 children participated in the study. The researchers found that while kids’ ADHD symptoms improved significant over the course of 12 months according to parent and teacher ratings scales, there were no significant improvements in most of the areas of functional impairment surveyed. That is, reading and math performance, which were considered to be impaired prior to treatment, showed no improvement after 12 months of medication treatment. This is significant given that the study is on children as opposed to rats. The researchers conclude that improving academic achievement requires more than simply reducing impairment in functioning. It requires learning new skills such as organization, study and learning skills. This is something that Dr. Brian and I discussed way back in episode 13 of Family Anatomy. Kids with ADHD require “pills and skills”.

At this point, it is safe to conclude that while Ritalin and other stimulant medications often improve ADHD symptoms such as an inability to focus and impulsiveness, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that these medications improve academic performance.

You can find the full-text article from the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine here.

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