Parents and doctors need to take heed when prescribing mood altering drugs for children, the authors of a new paper warn. Over the past twenty years, the number of kids prescribed such drugs for ailments from ADHD to depression has grown tremendously, while studies that look at how safe and effective these medicines actually are have lagged.
Dr. William Graf, who was the lead author of the study, said that some children do benefit from pharmacological treatment, but the chief concern is with those who use the drugs without medical need as aids to boost academic achievement. Nearly 2% of 8th graders and nearly 8% of 12th graders who use stimulants like Adderall don't have the conditions that the drug is typically prescribed to treat.
Some of those misused medicines are bought on the street or from peers with prescriptions; others may be obtained legally from doctors.
"What we're saying is that because of the volume of drugs and the incredible increaseâ¦ the possibility of overdiagnosis and overtreatment is clearly there," said Graf, from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
The findings – with the warnings included – were published in this month's edition of Neurology. The researchers are calling on their colleagues to stop prescribing mood altering drugs to kids who are healthy and are taking the pills for the effect they have on concentration. They add that giving drugs to healthy kids is a dangerous practice that "can't be justified," and could land doctors in trouble both ethically and legally.
"You're giving amphetamines to kids. I think we have to be worried about how that affects the brain, mood, rational thoughtâ¦ and we don't have enough data about that yet," he told Reuters Health.
Almut Winterstein, a pharmacy researcher from the University of Florida in Gainesville, agreed that not much is known about the effects of long-term stimulant use – another reason to be careful and make sure they're really necessary for a specific child. In the short term, stimulants increase heart rate and blood pressure.
Graf and his co-authors aren't the first to sound the alarm over the over-prescription of stimulants and anti-depressants to children. As Winterstein points out, when it comes to healthy brains, drugs like that won't do anything useful but could cause serious long-term harm. She said that parents are under the impression that ADHD and similar illnesses are the sole cause of academic underperformance, and could turn to drugs in desperation instead of seeking out other, less harmful interventions.