Now we know why Ritalin works

If you don't have many cells that process dopamine, the best way to get a healthy dose in your brain is to flood it with chemicals that produce dopamine. Stimulants. That's why Ritalin and Adderall help ADHD kids.

Why do stimulants like Ritalin turn ADHD kids normal but turn normal kids into hopped-up screaming meamies?

Turns out it's all about the dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. It passes signals between cells in your brain. Good signals.

Think of it as a chemical "attaboy." It is well known as a precursor to adrenaline, and Arvid Carlsson won the 2000 Nobel Prize in medicine for finding this other role.

Recently scientists at the Brookhaven National Lab gave 53 ADHD people and 44 controls a radioactive tracer that would "light up" dopamine receptors and transporters under a PET scanner.

What they found was the ADHD people had fewer of these cells, meaning our brains are less capable of processing dopamine, the chemical "attaboy," than other people. It's all gone into the Journal of the American Medical Association.

If you don't have many cells that process dopamine, the best way to get a healthy dose in your brain is to flood it with chemicals that produce dopamine. Stimulants. That's why Ritalin and Adderall help ADHD kids. These same chemicals overstimulate a brain with a normal load of dopamine receptors, which is why your kid just gets high on them.

But the study also explains a lot more. Eating stimulates dopamine, so fat ADHDers are self-medicating in the same way as their cousins who try benzedrine or other drugs. So does exercise, which may be why Michael Phelps stays in the pool all day.

This may also be why ADHD "poster boy" Robin Williams reported that, when he used cocaine, he felt quiet, normal, and sane. Cocaine also stimulates dopamine. This may also be why he later became an alchoholic. Alcohol helps stimulate the natural release of dopamine.

This may also be part of what drove Williams to be a comic and actor. Loud applause stimulates dopamine. It may explain why so many other ADHDers are so ambitious, so driven to succeed at their passions. We need more real attaboys to stimulate our limited dopamine receptors.

As an ADHD kid myself, and father to two more, this may also explain something I have found troubling my whole life. I don't react well to praise. Tell me you like this article and I may just shrug it off. Tell me you hate it and we can have a good argument -- well an argument at any rate. Praise doesn't give me the hit it gives you -- I need a lot of it to feel it.

So while some are going to take this study as offering a simple chemical solution to ADHD (more dopamine) I believe therapy is still highly recommended. The real answer lies in self-awareness, using ADHD's gifts to concentrate and create, while being aware of its downsides and treating yourself more gently as a result.

Word to my fellow ADHDers, of any age, wherever you are. You may not hear the applause, and you may not feel it, but it's there isif you work hard and listen closely.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com