Is taking Ritalin linked to addiction?

15 October 2013



I've heard that taking medication for ADD/ADHD like Ritalin over a long period of time (years) has been linked to compulsive behaviours like gambling, sex addiction, etc. Is there any evidence for that?


We posed this question to our panel of brains. Mike - What's happening here is that there's a link between - I'll probably be corrected but there's a link between the gambling and the ADHD. ADHD people are over represented in compulsive gamblers and I think that's well established, but I think the connection with Ritalin is much well established.

Hannah - So, you're saying that people with ADHD are possibly more likely to become gamblers?

Mike - That seems to be the evidence, yes.

Katie - And I would agree with that and I think that cause and effect can often be very difficult to disentangle. So, a lot of research has shown in those children with ADHD are much more likely to go on to develop substance abuse problems. Actually, a recent study that was done at UCLA looked at children with ADHD who were given medications like Ritalin and children who weren't given medications and they found no difference in the risk for developing substance abuse later in life. So, it seems to be something to do here with the ADHD rather than the medications.

Hannah - And that seems to make sense as well because the typical presentation of ADHD is the person may be slightly more impulsive and more likely to take risks. So for example, they might enjoy gambling or they might be more likely to abuse substances or go for substance of abuse in the first place.

Katie - Yes, that's true.

Bill - Does that mean the people who took Ritalin for their ADHD didn't get an improved outcome in terms of their gambling later? If you correct the ADHD with Ritalin, doesn't early training help you later in life?

Hannah - I think there's been some papers published where quite a lot of child ADHD cases are then taken off their medication early 20s and then they're not continued to be treated as adults, and it's at this point when they're off their medication that they're then more likely to become addicted to drugs of abuse for example or have problems with gambling.

Katie - With people with ADHD, it seems to be a case of some disrupted reward systems and attention control disregulation. This is what the Ritalin tries to address. In fact, one study that used Ritalin - a study done in Cambridge - that used Ritalin in people with frontal temporal dementia, so elderly people who are starting to become less able to use their cognitive control capacities actually found that giving Ritalin to individuals with frontal temporal dementia actually decreased their risk taking behaviour.

Hannah - And that's all we've got time for I'm afraid. Thanks to all of the listeners who got in touch with their questions and to Professors Bill Harris and Mike Edwardson, and doctorial researcher Katie Manning from Cambridge University for taking on your questions.


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