Drug alert The new brainkillers Lynne McTaggart In the pharmaceutical industry, a clever moneyspinner is to invent the problem, then continually reinvent the solution - as is the case with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Although undoubtedly a genuine problem for up to 7 per cent of schoolchildren and their families, the drug companies have managed to put over the idea that ADHD results from a chemical imbalance in the brain, which Ritalin (methylphenidate or MPH) supposedly reverses.
Which brain chemical this might be, and how it is repaired by a class-II controlled substance with the same effects as cocaine, has never been addressed. But as mounting evidence shows, if MPH is 'correcting' brain chemistry, it does so at great cost. The drug has been linked to growth restriction, anorexia, psychosis, insomnia, paranoia, hallucinations, epilepsy-like seizures, stroke and even death. As a drug on a par with cocaine, Ritalin has an enormous potential for dependence and abuse. It only works during the day to control symptoms and has rebound effects, so parents have to wrestle with full-fledged monstrous behaviour in the morning and later in the evening as their often insomniac children spiral out of control.
The new brain chemical
So now Eli Lilly, the folks who brought the world Prozac, ushering in a generation of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants (SSRIs), has reinvented the solution as Strattera (atomoxetine), the first non-stimulant drug for ADHD and the first new treatment for ADHD in more than 30 years. It's also the first type of drug that works continually for 24 hours.
Strattera is a highly selective noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor, a variation on the noradrenergic and selective serotonergic antidepressants. Noradrenaline (norepinephrine) and serotonin are the two brain chemicals believed to be responsible for depression, but also thought to regulate attention, impulsivity and activity. Since its launch in the US in January 2003, more than five million prescriptions have been written, and the global patient base at its launch in the UK already stood at 1.5 million.
Lilly thinks the drug works by selectively blocking receptor sites on brain nerve cells, allowing noradrenaline to circulate longer, and so enhancing mood and attention.
However, as they admit in their entry in the online version of the American drugs bible, the Physicians' Desk Reference (www. drugs.com/PDR/Strattera_Capsules.html), precisely how the drug works in ADHD is unknown - so, again, we're not really sure what chemical we're replenishing. And although this drug is intended to be taken long term, possibly for years, by children, it has never been subjected to an effectiveness trial lasing longer than nine weeks in children, or had a safety test beyond one year.
What doctors don't tell you
The most worrying effects of Strattera concern the heart, as it increases both blood pressure and heart rate. Children given the drug have an average increase of six beats/minute above normal although, in one study, nearly 4 per cent experienced an increase of at least 25 beats/minute (Physicians' Desk Reference). It can also suppress growth, dilate the pupils, and cause weight loss and a sudden drop in blood pressure.
At least 5 per cent of users will suffer from an upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, anorexia or decreased appetite, dizziness and mood swings. Other side-effects include aggression, irritability, sleeplessness, headache, cough and dermatitis.
Besides the heart issues, adults taking the drug can suffer from impotence, menstrual disturbances and abnormal orgasms.
It should never be taken by people taking a MAO inhibitor for depression, as this combination could be lethal, or by those with glaucoma, heart problems or high blood pressure.
What to do instead
See WDDTY vol 14 no 3 for a full description of a diet and supplement programme to beat ADHD without drugs.