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Girls medicated for ADHD are less prone to substance abuse

October 8, 2008 |  2:57 pm

On college campuses and in high school corridors, there's a lively market for Ritalin and other stimulant medication prescribed to those diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. And studies have long shown that kids with ADHD are much more likely than kids without attention problems to experiment with drugs recreationally.

So, is it the stimulant medication or is it ADHD -- a disorder frequently accompanied by problems of impulse-control -- that makes a kid more likely to abuse illicit substances? Do attention problems make these kids more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior such as substance abuse? Or does the fact that they are likely to take a widely abused prescription drug make these kids more open to abusing other drugs?

It's a question that's long worried parents and sparked furious debate among those who research and treat ADHD, which is believed to affect 8% of all American school kids, as well as among skeptics of psychopharmacology: Does medicating a kid for ADHD make it more or less likely that he or she will abuse illegal substances? As the first generation of kids to be diagnosed and medicated in large numbers grows into adulthood, answers are becoming clearer.

A study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine takes the latest crack at the controversy, and finds that for girls with ADHD, being medicated for the condition makes substance abuse less likely. The study builds on recent findings -- by the same group of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital -- suggesting that medicating boys who have the condition will help, at least, to delay their decision to try illegal substances.

The study followed 114 girls between the ages of 6 and 18 -- 94 of them medicated for ADHD and 20 of them not -- for five years. Those medicated for the condition were about half as likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or take illicit drugs as those who had the condition but were not medicated, found MGH psychopharmacologist Dr. Timothy Wilens and colleagues. Wilens says it's unclear that the protective effect of ADHD medications would follow the girls into adulthood, when the majority of kids diagnosed early tend to abandon the medications. But as long as girls with ADHD were "successfully treated," they were less likely to try cigarettes, alcohol or drugs.

-- Melissa Healy