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Prescription ADHD medications and their effects on future drug use

Student in lab
Two students in lab
Photos by Mary Bricker

The biology and psychology departments teamed up to study if prescription medications containing methylphenidate—such as Ritalin—could cause someone to be more likely to use illegal drugs such as cocaine in the future. Amanda Helton, biology, and Jordan Ross, psychology, developed experiments testing cross-sensitization of these substances in mice.

“Cross-sensitization refers to a heightened drug response upon subsequent exposure to a drug with a similar mechanism of action,” Helton said.

Aided by their faculty mentors, Drs. Steven Lloyd and Ryan Shanks, Helton and Ross exposed several groups of mice divided by age and gender to methylphenidate.

Lloyd and Shanks explained that methylphenidate is a psychostimulant, as it alters chemical processes within the brain in order to help a person focus. Most commonly prescribed for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder (ADHD), it is a commonly over-prescribed and abused substance. In testing for cross-sensitization between methylphenidate and other drugs such as cocaine, the group sought to prove a higher correlation of future drug use in those who have been exposed to methylphenidate.

Though this project was expected to take much longer than the six weeks offered by FUSE, the group had already made an interesting discovery by the end of the program.

“In the adolescent group, we found that females were much more likely to show increased activity after exposure to methylphenidate than males,” Ross said.

Both students feel the project has strengthened their skills within their separate disciplines.

“I mastered several technical skills within the field of biology that I can apply to my prospective career path,” Helton said. “I also gained an understanding of the intrinsic drive necessary to compete in the scientific community, which will benefit me well beyond the undergraduate level."

The instructors agreed, citing the experience as highly beneficial to themselves as well as the students.

“Focusing on students’ research outside of the classroom is ideal for total immersion in the subject,” Shanks said. “This is the type of experience that is transformative for a student’s future.”

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