Methylphenidate (MPH) is the most commonly used drug to treat attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children effectively and safely. In spite of its widespread application throughout one of the most plastic and sensitive phases of brain development, very little is known to date about its long-term effects on brain structure and function. Hence, this short review updates the influence of MPH on brain development, since recent human and animal studies suggest that MPH alters the dopaminergic system with long-term effects beyond the termination of treatment. Animal studies imply that the effects of MPH may depend on the neural responder system: Whereas structural and functional parameters are improved by MPH in animals with psychomotor impairments, they remain unaltered or get worse in healthy controls. While recent behavioural studies do not fully support such a differential effect of MPH in ADHD, the animal studies certainly prompt for further investigation of this issue. Furthermore, the abuse of MPH, when (rarely) intravenously applied, may even impair the maturation of dopaminergic fibres in subcortical brain areas. This argues for careful clinical assessment and diagnostics of ADHD symptomatology not only in conjunction with the prescription of MPH. Hence, one should be assured that MPH is only given to children with clear ADHD symptomatology leading to psychosocial impairment. The animal data suggest that under these conditions MPH is supportive for brain development and the related behaviour in children with ADHD.
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