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For Young People With ADHD, Drug Therapy Does Not Lead to Drug Abuse

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WebMD Health News

Nov. 16, 1999 (Atlanta) -- Children and adolescents with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are typically treated with drugs such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) that also have potential for abuse: This has given rise to fears that ADHD treatment would lead to abuse of other drugs. This belief has now been shown to be incorrect, according to a study published in a recent issue of Pediatrics. In fact, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University found that drug therapy reduces the risk of drug abuse in adolescents with ADHD by 85% compared with the risk in untreated ADHD youths.

"There is a very prevailing thought in the public and in the media that the treatment of ADHD is intrinsically bad, that perhaps it may create a culture of medication that people [grow] accustomed to -- that they start to not trust themselves, trusting pills [instead], which in itself may generate a new cycle of using pills to relieve distress," researcher Joseph Biederman, MD, tells WebMD.

Biederman -- a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and chief of pediatric psychopharmacology at Massachusetts General Hospital -- says that until now, there has been no conclusive research to prove or disprove this public perception. Therefore, he says, "when you have things that are not resolved, you have opinions that fill the vacuum of knowledge. [Now] we have the first statistical evidence that the treatment of ADHD in childhood is protective against substance abuse in adolescence," he says.

Biederman and his research group studied boys who were 15 and older at the start of the study. The researchers divided the boys into three groups: ADHD boys who received drug treatment, untreated ADHD boys, and boys who did not have ADHD or receive any treatment, as a comparison ("control") group. Treated ADHD boys were monitored for an average of 4.4 years.

The researchers used statistical analysis to ensure that their findings were not skewed by risk factors sometimes associated with drug abuse. These included young age, socioeconomic status, parents who abused drugs, and potential for developing a form of behavior disorder.

The researchers compared the risk of drug abuse between 1) the treated vs. the untreated ADHD boys and 2) the untreated ADHD vs. the untreated non-ADHD boys. They found that the treated ADHD boys had a significantly reduced risk of drug abuse (alcohol, marijuana, hallucinogen, cocaine/stimulant) compared with untreated AHDH boys -- who in turn had a significantly greater drug abuse risk than the untreated non-ADHD boys.

"The findings are important for many reasons," says Biederman. "But the main one has to do with the idea that parents are frequently concerned about medicating their children because of the potential for enhancing risk of substance abuse, since the treatment for ADHD includes stimulant drugs that are potential drugs of abuse. So the fact that children who are treated pharmacologically with [these] medicines have a significantly [reduced] risk for substance abuse is enormously reassuring in its own right.

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