Stimulants (amphetamines [Adderall, Dexedrine] and methylphenidate [Concerta, Ritalin]) increase alertness, attention, and energy. They also increase blood pressure and heart rate, constrict blood vessels, increase blood glucose, and open up the pathways of the respiratory system. Historically, stimulants were prescribed to treat asthma and other respiratory problems, obesity, neurological disorders, and a variety of other ailments. As their potential for abuse and addiction became apparent, the prescribing of stimulants by physicians began to wane. Now, stimulants are prescribed for treating only a few health conditions, most notably ADHD, narcolepsy, and, in some instances, depression that has not responded to other treatments.
How Are Stimulants Abused?
Stimulants may be taken orally, but some abusers crush the tablets, dissolve them in water, and then inject the mixture; complications can arise from this because insoluble fillers in the tablets can block small blood vessels. Stimulants have been abused for both “performance enhancement” and recreational purposes (i.e., to get high).
How Do Prescription Stimulants Affect the Brain?
Stimulants have chemical structures that are similar to key brain neurotransmitters called monoamines, including dopamine and norepinephrine. Their therapeutic effect is achieved by slow and steady increases of dopamine that are similar to the natural production of this chemical by the brain. The doses prescribed by physicians start low and increase gradually until a therapeutic effect is reached. However, when taken in doses and routes other than those prescribed, stimulants can increase the brain’s dopamine levels in a rapid and highly amplified manner—as do most other drugs of abuse—disrupting normal communication between brain cells, producing euphoria, and increasing the risk of addiction.
What Adverse Effects Are Associated With Stimulant Abuse?
Taking high doses of a stimulant can result in an irregular heartbeat, dangerously high body temperatures, and/or the potential for cardiovascular failure or seizures. Taking some stimulants in high doses or repeatedly can lead to hostility or feelings of paranoia in some individuals.
Stimulants should not be mixed with antidepressants, which may enhance the effects of a stimulant; or with OTC cold medicines containing decongestants, which may cause blood pressure to become dangerously high or may lead to irregular heart rhythms.
Are There Treatments for Stimulant Addiction?
Treatment of addiction to prescription stimulants is based on behavioral therapies proven effective for treating cocaine or methamphetamine addiction. At this time, there are no proven medications for the treatment of stimulant addiction.
Depending on the patient’s situation, the first step in treating prescription stimulant addiction may be to decrease the drug’s dose slowly and attempt to treat withdrawal symptoms (mood changes, sleep and appetite disturbances). This process of detoxification could then be followed with one of many behavioral therapies: contingency management, for example, improves treatment outcomes by enabling patients to earn vouchers for drug-free urine tests; the vouchers can be exchanged for items that promote healthy living. Cognitive-behavioral therapies—which teach patients skills to recognize risky situations, avoid drug use, and cope more effectively with problems—are proving beneficial. Recovery support groups may also be effective in conjunction with a behavioral therapy.