The Dawn of the Adderall Era

By Dirk Hanson 04/04/11
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Happy Little Tykes.
Photo via wcanews

Bringing up the subject of Ritalin or Adderall in a chat with friends, or at a dinner gathering, is often the equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. For children with some form of diagnosed attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder, prescription amphetamines are either the Second Coming or the Devil’s Brew. Depending on whom you ask, it either helps addled adolescents lead normal lives, or it's a classic pharmaceutical company conspiracy. But if you believe giving powerful forms of speed to children is a new idea, you’re wrong. An article just published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, looks back to a study of the behavior of children on amphetamines, which was undertaken by a certain Dr. Charles Bradleyin 1937. Ah, those were the days, when men of medicine were free to follow their investigative, ethics-free whims wherever they might lead. In Dr. Bradley’s case, they led to Benzedrine, a powerful stimulant that Bradley fed to children who were accused of exhibiting unruly behavior. And how did this form of amphetamine effect his pint-sized patients? Dr. Bradley observed that many of the amped-up kids had a greater drive to accomplish, but paradoxically exhibited calmer, more subdued emotional responses. As British psychologist Vaughan Bell notes at Mind Hacks, Bradley’s work was published at a time when the industrial revolution had begun to change popular perceptions of childhood. Prior to the 1930s, children were expected to act like children— a certain amount of rowdiness and roughhousing went along wih the territory. Suddenly, “a lack of social self-regulation and focus” began to define the “problem child.” This ripe market might have been exploited earlier if the company that became GlaxoSmithKline had not balked at the difficulty of selling “the seemingly contradictory effects of a stimulant having a calming effect.” In the 1970s, medical researchers coined the term "attention deficit disorder" to describe childhood hyperactivity. This became the diagnosis known as ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, that caused the market to take off in the 1980s. Ritalin is one of the flagship drugs of Pharma giant Novartis, which saw its net sales rise to $44 billion in 2009. Adderall, which is one of the most abused pharmaceuticals among adolescents and college students, can fetch up to $25 a pill on the street.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]