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Why Is Ritalin Called a Stimulant?

Pediatrics Expert Advice from Henry Bernstein, M.D.

Q: Why are medications such as Ritalin called stimulants, if they appear to slow children down?

A: "Stimulants" are named that way because they are used to stimulate certain parts of the brain that are not acting at normal levels. For example, methylphenidate (Ritalin) is sometimes used to treat children with attention and/or hyperactive disorders, such as ADHD. It is believed that the part of the brain that controls attentiveness in these children may be underdeveloped, or not working fast enough to keep them focused. Ritalin targets this part of the brain and "stimulates" it to work at a more normal pace, so a child can concentrate and pay attention better.

A hyperactive child, who is unable to concentrate well, may actually appear calmer after using Ritalin -- he may seem to be "slowed down." However, if he is slowed down so much so that it gets in the way of his everyday activities, then his doctor may want to make a change. The doctor may decrease the amount of the medicine he is receiving or even change his prescription altogether to a different medication. Each child is treated individually and followed closely by his teachers, family, and doctor.

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Henry Bernstein, M.D., is currently the associate chief of the Division of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital, Boston. He also has an academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.


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