How ADHD medication works

ByJulie Rawe

How does ADHD medication work? Why do stimulants and other kinds of ADHD medication help reduce ADHD symptoms?

Learn how ADHD medication works in the brain.

How ADHD affects a key process in the brain

For the brain to do anything, like smell a flower or spell a word, neurons (brain cells) have to pass information along to each other. This process is called neurotransmission.

How does one neuron send a message to the next? The tail end of the sending neuron releases a small amount of chemicals called neurotransmitters. These chemicals have to cross a tiny gap — called a synapse — to reach the tip of the receiving neuron.

With ADHD, this process can get disrupted in different ways:

  1. The sending neuron may not release enough neurotransmitters.
  2. The neurotransmitters may have trouble activating the landing pads (receptors) on the receiving neuron.
  3. The sending neuron may suck the neurotransmitters back up before a good connection is made.

All sending neurons need to vacuum up extra neurotransmitters so they can get ready to send another signal. This process is called reuptake. But it can happen too quickly with ADHD, before the receiving neuron gets the message.

How ADHD medication works

Trouble passing information from neuron to neuron can affect attention. It can impact motivation, too. It also helps explain other ADHD symptoms like being restless and impulsive.

Medication can reduce ADHD symptoms. It does this by helping neurons pass along messages. It can make neurotransmission more efficient in one or more ways.

Some types of ADHD medication help release more neurotransmitters. Other types help slow down reuptake — they’re called reuptake inhibitors. Both of these actions can help more neurotransmitters reach the next neuron.

By improving neurotransmission, ADHD medication can make kids less hyperactive. It can help them pay attention. And that can help them process and learn new information.

ADHD medication works in about eight out of 10 people. But it’s not a “cure” for ADHD. It can reduce symptoms only while it’s active in the body.

More on ADHD medication

There are two main types of ADHD medication: stimulants and non-stimulants. Each type targets a different neurotransmitter. Not all people respond equally well to different types, and it’s not uncommon to switch from one to the other.

Keep in mind that ADHD medication can cause side effects. This is true for stimulants and non-stimulants. Two of the most common side effects are decreased appetite and trouble sleeping.

Some people get anxious or restless when medication wears off. This is called a rebound effect. There are rarer side effects, too, like motor tics. Taking notes in an ADHD medication log can help you track side effects.

Learn about other ADHD treatment options. And get tips to help with ADHD at home.

Remember that having ADHD — and the brain differences that come with it — doesn’t mean someone isn’t smart. But these differences can make it harder for parts of the brain to communicate with each other and get stuff done.

Understood is not affiliated with any pharmaceutical company.

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About the author

About the author

Julie Rawe is the special projects editor at Understood.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Nelson Dorta, PhD is a pediatric neuropsychologist and an assistant professor of medical psychology in child psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.