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Ritalin for Brain Injury: Can It Actually Help with Recovery?

Pharmacist giving advice about Ritalin for brain injury to customer

Can taking the medication Ritalin for brain injury boost cognitive function after TBI?

You’re about to learn how Ritalin can impact brain injury recovery and which cognitive impairments it can help you overcome.

To help you decide whether this drug will benefit you, today’s article will discuss the pros and cons of Ritalin for brain injury.

How Ritalin Works

Ritalin, also known as methylphenidate, is a drug that enhances neurotransmitter activity in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow neurons to communicate with each other.

The more neurotransmitters available to the brain, the more efficiently the various neurons can send messages. This will improve overall brain function.

Ritalin blocks the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that boost mood and concentration. By blocking the reabsorption of these “feel good” chemicals, it leaves more available for the brain to use.

Ritalin is primarily used to manage symptoms in patients with ADHD. However, because brain injury shares several characteristics with ADHD, many doctors prescribe it to their TBI patients as well.

Potential Benefits of Taking Ritalin for Brain Injury

Several studies show that traumatic brain injury can cause a significant decrease in dopamine levels.

Therefore, medications such as Ritalin that increase the amount of dopamine in the brain might improve TBI symptoms.

Here are the possible benefits of Ritalin for brain injury patients:

1. May Improve Cognitive Fatigue

woman sitting at computer and yawning

One common symptom of brain injury that may be caused by dopamine imbalance is cognitive fatigue.

While we do not know the exact mechanism of cognitive fatigue, doctors do know that the brain processes information less efficiently after a traumatic injury.

For example, in a study that compared brain activity of both healthy patients and TBI patients, the TBI survivors used more brain regions to complete a mental task than the non-injured group did.

When treated with Ritalin, however, brain injury patients displayed lower mental fatigue and shorter reaction time. In other words, Ritalin helped them make more efficient use of their brain’s resources.

2. May Help Working Memory

Another common cognitive effect of brain injury is impaired short-term or working memory.

This type of memory refers to a person’s ability to remember what happened within the last 30-40 seconds. While that doesn’t sound like much, it is why most people can:

  • Understand sentences, both written and spoken.
  • Remember short sequences of numbers, like telephone numbers.
  • Remember what’s on their grocery list.

In short, working memory allows you to learn new skills and interact meaningfully with the world.   

Brain injury can hamper this skill, but fortunately, studies have shown that Ritalin improves working memory.

For example, in one double-blind, placebo-controlled study, scientists compared the memory skills of 15 severe TBI patients to 15 healthy patients. As the researchers expected, the healthy patients significantly outperformed the TBI patients given a placebo drug.

But when the TBI patients used Ritalin, their working memory performed at the same level as those without a brain injury. This indicates that Ritalin can improve memory skills.

3. May Help Boost Motivation

Girl leaning on wall looking sad because she has low motivation

Finally, Ritalin can boost motivation in brain injury patients.

Lack of motivation usually occurs after a frontal lobe injury. Low dopamine levels also play a role in motivation.

Therefore, people with decreased dopamine levels will have a more difficult time finding the motivation to begin or complete an activity. That’s where Ritalin comes in.

Because Ritalin boosts the amount of dopamine available in the brain, it can allow brain injury patients to find the motivation they lack.

In fact, according to researchers from Brown University, Ritalin enables individuals to focus on the benefits of work, not the cost.

This has huge implications for TBI survivors because it can motivate them to continue with their therapy at home, something many patients struggle with.  

How to Use Ritalin for Brain Injury

Now that you understand some of the benefits of Ritalin for brain injury, let’s discuss the best way to use it.

All these benefits of Ritalin can make it sound like a magic pill for brain injury. And indeed, for many patients, it has made a positive impact on their recovery.

However, that doesn’t mean no work is required once you take the drug. Ritalin can lessen the severity of your cognitive deficits and improve your mood, but it won’t cure you.

The only way to truly recover from a brain injury is to maximize the effects of neuroplasticity. This will allow your brain to reorganize itself and recover function.

In fact, studies show that Ritalin is more effective when combined with cognitive therapy than when used on its own.

To activate neuroplasticity, you must practice intensive exercises. The more repetitions you perform, the more your brain will strengthen its neural pathways.

For example, to improve your memory skills, therapists recommend you practice cognitive rehab exercises every day.

Therefore, the best way to use Ritalin is as an aid to therapy, and not as a replacement.

Side Effects of Ritalin

senior woman reading label of bottle of Ritalin for brain injury

While Ritalin offers many potential benefits for brain injury patients, it can also trigger some serious side effects.

The most common side effects of Ritalin include:

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite

In addition, for patients with normal dopamine levels, Ritalin can cause an excess of dopamine. This can lead to psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, as well as aggression and euphoria.

Fortunately, Ritalin is a fast-acting drug, which means it does not stay in the body long. Therefore, if you do experience these symptoms, stopping the drug will eliminate its side effects.

Patients can also develop a tolerance for Ritalin after chronic use. That is why doctors recommend only using Ritalin for a limited time, usually at the beginning of recovery.

Ritalin for Brain Injury: Is It Right for You?

When a brain injury impairs a person’s concentration, mood, or memory, many doctors recommend Ritalin.

Ritalin increases the amount of dopamine and other chemicals available to the brain and boosts cognitive function. However, it is not a permanent solution.

While Ritalin can clear your mind and motivate you, consistent therapy is the only sure way to reverse the cognitive effects of brain injury.

With enough practice, your cognitive skills may improve enough that you no longer need Ritalin at all.

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