This article is about stimulants used in treatment of ADHD. See ADHD and DBDs articles for role of stimulants in the overall treatment strategies. A separate article addresses design and outcomes of the MTA study. Intoxication and overdose with stimulants is addressed separately.


Amphetamine is a racemic compound (equal parts of D- and L-isomers). D-isomer (dextroamphetamine) is 3-4 times more potent than the L-isomer (levoamphetamine) as a CNS stimulant.[1] Stimulants used in ADHD are modified forms of amphetamine:

  • Dexedrine is a dextroamphetamine (d-amphetamine) which is the D-isomer of amphetamine.
  • Adderall is a mixture of salts of d-amphetamine and racemic amphetamine (d,l-amphetamine)
  • Vyvanse is lesdexamphetamine, a prodrug metabolized by an enzyme on RBCs to d-amphetamine

Amphetamines have a short half-life (3-6 hours), necessitating TID dosing or use of extended-release preparations qAM.

Most (80%) is excreted unchanged by the kidneys, especially if urinary pH is low; acidifying urine increases rate of excretion (consider in overdose).


Methylphenidate (MPH) is a racemic compound derived from amphetamine:

  • Concerta, Ritalin, Metadate, and Methylin are d,l-methylphenidate (MPH)
  • Focalin is a D-isomer of MPH, or d-methylphenidate
  • Daytrana is a transdermal MPH patch; it is placed on the skin for 9 hrs/day and can be effective for up to 12 hrs

Since D-isomer is beleived to be the active compund in CNS stimulation, 5 mg of Focalin has similar potency as 10mg of Ritalin,[1] while, theoretically, causing fewer side effects.

MPH has a half-life of 2-3 hours. 75% of MPH is metabolized (extensive 1st-pass metabolism) to inactive ritalinic acid.

Other stimulantsEdit

  • Desoxyn is a methamphetamine (not MPH), approved for ADHD and exogenous obesity, but rarely prescribed

Mechanism of ActionEdit

Amphetamines and MPH increase synaptic concentrations of dopamine (DA), norepinephrine (NE), and serotonin via different mechanisms. Both MPH and amphetamines cause DA vessicles to relesase their contents at the synapse (amphetamines do this more selectively). MPH and amphetamines also block DA reuptake at the synapse. Amphetamines have more potent effect on the NE pathways than MPH does. [3]

Adverse EffectsEdit

Growth retardation is likely 2° to stimulant-induced appetite suppression. In the MTA study 2-year follow-up children on MPH were 1cm/year shorter and 1 kg lighter than children not taking stimulants. There is evidence that children "catch-up" once they enter puberty, or during "drug holidays," (e.g. if the medication is discontinued for the summer), however a cumulative deficit of about 1 inch may persist.[4] Significance of poor appetite can be minimized, if stimulants are taken with food (or after finishing breakfast).

Sleep disturbance is another common adverse effect. Management of this AE starts with sleep hygeine and stimulant dose adjustment. For children whose sleep troubles remain significant, adding an α-agonist (clonidine) qPM, switching to a different stimulant, or Intuniv are fair options.

Other common side effects include headache, GI symptoms, jitteriness, irritability, increase in HR and BP, dry mouth, blurred vision (anticholinergic AE).

Rarer and more concerning AE include depressed mood, emotional blunting/"zombie appearance"/"amphetamine look," hallucinations, tics, arrhythmias, leukopenia, and alopecia.

Clinical guidelinesEdit

Stimulants are contraindicated in patients with glaucoma, symptomatic CVD/HTN, hyperthyroidism, advanced atherosclerosis, and those taking MAO-I in the last 2 weeks.

Check BP and HR before starting a stimulant and at every dose increase. Obtain baseline and follow-up measure of symptom severity in two setting. [2][6] Baseline EKG is not part of the standard screening in the US.

Record height and weight and track yearly.

ADHD patients with manic symptoms can be put on a stimulant after the mood symptoms have been controlled with a mood-stabilizer. [2]

Ordering TSH and lead levels is only warranted if there is evidence of thyroid dysfunction or risk of lead exposure. [2]

Stimulants are generally safe in children with comorbid ADHD and tic disorder, however if tics worsen, or new tics appear, the stimulant should be changed or discontinued. [4]

MPH may lower seizure threshold; children with seizure disorders should be on an anticonvulsant.

Which stimulant to start with?Edit
  • Start a long-acting stimulant with the smallest marketed dose, titrate up q1-3 weeks.
  • A stimulant that worked in a family member is a good first choice.
  • MPH preparations are not recommended for children under age 6; start 5-year-olds on an amphetamine preparation.

Extended-Release StimulantsEdit

Long-acting Stimulants approved for ADHD (methylphenidate and amphetamine preparations)


Mode of Delivery


Doses, mg

Typical Starting Dose

Max Dose per Day

Duration of Action

Ritalin SR (MPH)

Gradually released from wax matrix;

Pulse release; must swallow whole




7-8 hrs

Metadate ER

10, 20

Lesser than 2mg/kg/day or 60mg

Methylin ER (MPH)

10, 20

Metadate CD (MPH)

30% IR; 70% 3hrs later

Beaded pearls; can open and sprinkle

10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60


8-9 hrs

Ritalin LA (MPH)

50% IR; 50% 4 hrs later

10, 20, 30, 40



7-9 hrs

Focalin XR (d-MPH)

Pearls; capsule

5, 10, 15, 20


Lesser than 1mg/kg/d or 30mg

Up to 12 hrs

Concerta (MPH)

18% IR tab coating; 82% osmotically; mimics tid IR; ok if cap seen in stool

OROS Pump; don’t open

18, 27, 36, 54


Lesser than 2mg/kg/d or 72mg

Daytana (MPH)

Gradually releasing MPH

Trans-dermal film

10, 15, 20, 30


Lesser than 1mg/kg/d or 30mg

12 hrs

Adderall XR

50% IR; 50% 4hr later

Beaded pearls; can sprinkle

5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30


Lesser than 1mg/kg or 30mg

10 hrs


Initial dose released immediately; remainder gradually released

Beaded pearls

5, 10, 15

5-10mg b.i.d.

Lesser than 1mg/kg or 40mg

10 hrs

Vyvanse (lisdexamphetamine)

Amphetamine w lysine attached; activated by GI cleavage of lysine


20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70


Lesser than 1mg/kg or 70mg

10 hrs

Abbreviations: OROS = osmotic-release oral system; IR = immediate release.

Notes: Concerta capsule should not be chewed or opened; pill may be seen in stool intact. Children with reduced GI absorption or transit time will benefit less. Patch: higher bioavailability (no first-pass metabolism).


Clinical PearlsEdit

Stimulants are contraindicated in patients with glaucoma, psychosis, symptomatic CVD/HTN, hyperthyroidism, advanced atherosclerosis, and those taking MAO-I in the last 2 weeks.

Currently only stimulants, atomoxetine, and guanfacine ER (Intuniv) have approved FDA indications for ADHD.

Black-box warning was briefly considered for MPH-based drugs, because of cardiac-related adverse events, including sudden unexplained deaths.

Rebound is marked worsening of ADHD symptoms at the end of the day, as the blood level of a stimulant drop below a certain threshold. If the child is taking an extended-release stimulant, consider adding a small short-acting dose in the afternoon.

There is no increase in risk of future drug or alcohol abuse from appropriate stimulant use; in fact, children with untreated ADHD are at higher risk for substance use, than children taking stimulants for ADHD; however, stimulants are a Category II drugs, have substantial street value (particularly short-acting preparations), and can not be prescribed for more than 30 d (no refills).

Pemoline is not used due to hepatotoxicity.

When swithcing from MPH to d-amphetamine, half the dose for equivlent potency.

  • parents often see general improvement within the first week, and up to 80% of children with ADHD respond to their first stimulant.
  • About a third of children with ADHD will need to continue taking stimulants into adulthood to control symptoms
  • Roughly another third will not have significant symptoms as adults
  • Hyperactivity is the symptom most likely to be "outgrown"

Major studiesEdit

MTA studyEdit

The Multimodal Treatment Study of ADHD and its 2-year follow up is covered in a separate article.

PATS StudyEdit

Preschool ADHD Treatment Study (2006) was a radndomized placebo-controlled trial (RCT) in which 3 to 5.5yo children with symptoms of severe ADHD were prescribed MPH TID or placebo. There was marked decrease in ADHD symptoms. MPH was mostly well tolerated, but overall, 11% discontinued treatment due to AE. No episodes of mania, suicidality or serious cardiac events were observed.

Other CNS stimulantsEdit

  • Cocaine
  • Caffeine
  • Nicotine
  • Modafinil
  • MDMA (Ecstasy)
  • Crystal meth


[1] Labbate LA. Handbook of Psychiatric Drug Therapy 2010

[2] AACAP Practice Parameter JAACAP, 2007;46(7):894-921

[3] Martin A. Lewis's Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 4th edition pp.757-759

[4] Manos MJ. Managing ADHD ni a Fast-Paced World JManagCarePharm Nov.2007

[5] Information in the table is adopted from Lewis's Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 4th edition pp.443-446, [1], [6], and the PDR

[6] Bezchlibnyk-Butler KZ. Clinical Handbook of Psychotropic Drugs for Children and Adolescents 2nd ed. 2007


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