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What do ADHD Drugs do?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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There are several different ADHD drugs, or drugs that treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They are designed to help promote calm, improve focus and in general allay the symptoms of ADHD. The degree to which they are successful depends on correct diagnosis of ADHD, and meds may not work if the diagnosis of ADHD is incorrect. Each person will respond to medications differently too and individual response can vary, but most people are adequately treated by one of the drugs available, which include some stimulants, some non-stimulant drugs, and some antidepressants.

The most commonly used ADHD drugs are stimulants. These are used in small amounts and in the brain they increase the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine. In particular, additional norepinephrine may help to increase attention, while dopamine may promote calm. It’s also been discovered that these drugs tend to work most in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is an area of the brain thought connected to attention and to things like impulsivity. Important research in 2006 suggests that knowing the area of the brain in which ADHD drugs work might be used to tailor drugs that treat ADHD better.

There are other medications that are not stimulants that can be used as ADHD drugs. The most common of these is atomoxetene, sold under the brand name Strattera®. Atomoxetene was originally created to work as an antidepressant, and this information helps to explain how it works. Instead of creating more norepinephrine, it blocks absorption or reuptake of norepinephrine. This leaves more available in the brain to help improve attention and focus. However, it also has been associated with psychotic and highly suicidal reactions in a number of children and organizations like the Food and Drug Administration require a black box warning on it. This doesn’t mean that ADHD drugs like atomoxetene aren’t useful, but they do require careful consideration.

Other medications that might be called ADHD drugs are more often used as antidepressants, usually of a class of medications called tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs). The most commons ones used are Imipramine, Desipramine, Nortryptiline, and Amitriptyline. Most of these operate as inhibitors of dopamine and norepinephrine reuptake. They may also have some effect on the brain’s serotonin levels. TCAs usually aren’t the first choice in treatment for ADHD but they are not stimulants, and they may be preferred when stimulants do not work. They are extremely dangerous if overdose occurs, and they do run some of the same risks of increasing suicidal behavior that does atomoxetene.

In general, it can be said that all ADHD drugs have an action on certain brain chemicals that may be in low supply in the person with ADHD. They may do this by suppressing the brain’s reuptake of these chemicals or by stimulating the brain to create more of these chemicals. Most appear to be effectively engaged with the area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which may be in most need when this condition appears to exist.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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