Monday, April 22, 2019

Letter: Collateral Damage


I recently encountered a news story whose most notable feature may be its strange lack of coverage in the mainstream press. Even though it’s nearly two years old, it still seems serious enough to be worth writing about.

In 2017, researchers at the University of Amsterdam published a study in which they measured levels of the neurotransmitter GABA+ in the brains of adults who, as children, had been diagnosed with ADHD and medicated with methylphenidate (aka Ritalin aka Concerta). They found that these adults suffered a permanent deficit of the neurotransmitter. The consequences are unknown, though this is almost certainly a bad thing, because:

1) The human brain is extremely complex, and nobody fully understands the delicate balance of thousands of chemicals needed for it to function properly.

2) This is the same neurotransmitter which ADHD treatments are trying to increase in the short term. The scientists described what they had discovered as “an aberration from the normal development of the GABAergic system,” saying that “Future studies are therefore warranted to assess the underlying mechanisms, as well as the consequences of these lower GABA+ levels.”

The pharmaceutical industry’s attitude toward the controversy is best summed up as: ‘We don’t know the ramifications of these missing neurotransmitters, but whatever sort of damage the drugs may cause, it’s acceptable collateral damage in the struggle to get kids to behave better in grade school.’

Since ADHD medication is used mainly on boys, I sometimes wonder if all the statistics about women surpassing men in higher education might have anything to do with the fact that some 10 or 20% America’s young male population is going through life with neurotransmitter deficits whose effects are basically unknown.

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