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Understanding Stimulants: Mechanisms of Action and Their Role in Treating Cognitive Deficits

What are Stimulants

If your brain’s current level of functioning isn’t playing the role it should, we can help. Call Neurodiagnostics Medical P.C. today!

You may have considered using stimulants to treat cognitive deficits like ADHD. Will stimulants work? 

With the right mechanism of action, stimulants may indeed be useful for your cognition. What is “mechanism of action?” As a top neurologist in NYC, Neurodiagnostics Medical P.C. can help you understand how various types of stimulants affect the brain and whether that’s a good thing. 

Keep reading to discover everything you should know about using stimulants to treat cognitive deficits.

What is “Mechanism of Action?”

The “mechanism of action” refers to how a medicine you take interacts with your body, including on the molecular level. For example, an antibacterial medication kills bacteria. On the molecular level, this type of mechanism introduces chemicals into the body that will prevent the bacteria from forming a cell wall, destabilizing your bacterial infection.

Understanding how these drugs work isn’t a requirement for benefitting from the medication. However, knowing the details certainly helps you make a more informed decision about the benefits and risks associated with it.

What Are Stimulants?

You probably have at least a vague answer to the question, “What are stimulants?” Medical doctors classify stimulants as psychoactive drugs, which means they interact with your central nervous system to alter perception, mood, behavior, and cognition. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, stimulants work primarily through increasing the available level of dopamine in your brain. This neurotransmitter has many functions, including:

  • Maintaining movement and memory
  • Reinforcing the reward and motivation processes
  • Regulating behavior and cognition
  • Enabling attention and focus
  • Regulating sleep and arousal
  • Balancing mood
  • Learning and acquiring new information
  • Constricting and relaxing blood vessels
  • Enhancing the body’s ability to remove sodium and urine
  • Prevents overproduction of insulin in the pancreas
  • Regulates digestion

Mental health professionals frequently use non-stimulant psychoactive medications to treat conditions like depression.

Natural and Legal Stimulants

According to a study sponsored by the University at Buffalo, caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world. You’ll find it in coffee, many carbonated beverages, energy drinks, and even diet pills.

Caffeine has multiple mechanisms of action, but its primary function is blocking the chemical adenosine, which causes your body and brain to feel sleepy. It also helps calcium move more freely through cell membranes, which regulates the release of important neurotransmitters.

According to Verywell Health, caffeine’s mechanism of action has the following positive benefits:

  • Improves alertness, concentration, and memory retrieval
  • Increases the metabolism of fat
  • Improves the effect of exercise
  • Helps maintain a positive mood

Controlled Stimulants

Other drugs contain high levels of stimulants but remain illegal or highly regulated because of their negative benefits. Examples of these stimulants include:

  • Nicotine: Most commonly found in cigarettes, nicotine promotes weight loss, improves mood, and increases dopamine. It also has significant risks, including nausea, stroke, and a high rate of addiction.
  • Cocaine: You derive cocaine from the leaves of the coca plant, and it greatly increases the level of dopamine in the brain. However, over time, you become tolerant and gain fewer results. Long-term use can lead to death.
  • Methamphetamine: This illegal drug gives you feelings of euphoria and greatly increases wakefulness and arousal. Even small doses can permanently damage your nervous system.

Prescription Stimulants

Prescription stimulants are the most responsible way to treat cognitive deficits, including Ritalin, Adderall, and Dexedrine. Overall, prescription stimulant use remains relatively low. One study estimates around 6.5% of adults and 3.5% of children use prescription stimulants each year.

The relatively low rate of stimulant use likely derives from their high rate of addiction. Healthcare professionals prefer you to use them only temporarily and try other methods of treatment first.

Stimulant’s Role in Treating Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

How do doctors use a stimulant’s mechanism of action to treat cognitive deficits? The most obvious application concerns its use in ADHD treatment. 

ADHD Prevalence and Type

Forbes estimated that nearly 130 million children and 366 million adults worldwide have ADHD, making it one of the most common neurological disorders. ADHD presents slightly differently in each person, and men and women have pronounced differences. 

Doctors categorize ADHD into three different categories—primarily inattentive, primarily hyperactive, or a combination of the two.

The Symptoms of ADHD 

Symptoms of ADHD 

In general, the most common symptoms of ADHD include the following:

  • Lack of impulse control (specifically, bad decisions)
  • Disorganization and difficulty prioritizing tasks
  • Inadequate time management skills
  • Difficulty regulating focus, including a lack of focus on uninteresting matters or an unhealthy hyperfocus on interesting tasks
  • An inability to multitask
  • Trouble sleeping and sitting still
  • Feeling excessively restless
  • A low tolerance for frustration and high vulnerability to burnout and stress
  • Mood swings
  • Poor emotional regulation
  • Difficulty completing tasks or following through on obligations

Many people with ADHD also experience comorbid mental health issues, like depression or anxiety. The stigma of living with the condition also commonly leads to eating disorders, depression, loneliness, self-esteem issues, and difficulties holding a traditional job.

How Stimulants Treat ADHD

Forbes also reported that about 77% of children and adolescents already receive treatment for their ADHD symptoms. You cannot cure ADHD, as such, but stimulants manage the symptoms and reduce their effect on your daily life.

So, what is the specific mechanism of action that stimulants use to treat ADHD? Several studies show a strong link between a condition and low levels of dopamine, which imaging tests will often show in areas of the brain where dopamine facilitates learning. So, while stimulants have other benefits, the primary way to manage ADHD symptoms is by increasing the brain’s access to dopamine.

Other Uses of Stimulants for Cognitive Deficits

Doctors can use stimulants to treat cognitive deficits caused by other conditions. 

For example, common causes of these cognitive challenges include the following:

  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Long-term effects of substance abuse
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Vitamin deficiency or autism
  • Medical treatments like chemotherapy
  • Certain effects of Alzheimer’s

Risks Associated With Using Stimulants

Stimulants come with a wide variety of side effects and risks ranging from minor and common to major and rare. Thankfully, you’ll have a wide variety of stimulants to choose from, so if you experience negative side effects with one, you can often still find another that works.

No matter what stimulant you try, stay in close communication with your doctor. Never use stimulants more than the prescribed amount and frequency. You should also notify your doctor immediately if you have any of the following short-term side effects:

  • Sleep disruptions, including the inability to fall asleep and frequent waking
  • Abdominal pain and digestive issues
  • Headache, especially as the medication wears off or due to loss of appetite
  • In children, reduced growth of both height and weight 
  • Anxiety or an increase in existing anxiety symptoms
  • Dilated pupils and lack of focus 
  • Increased temperature, blood pressure, and pulse

Potential Side Effects From Long-Term Use

While you can use the right stimulant long-term without issue, closely monitoring your symptoms guards against developing the following conditions:

  • Damage to the heart, blood vessels, and brain
  • High blood pressure
  • Weight loss
  • Psychosis and mental illness
  • Chronic fatigue and exhaustion
  • Addiction

Overdosing on Prescription Stimulants

If you don’t use prescription drugs in the way your doctor intends, you may overdose. Stay vigilant for these signs of a stimulant drug overdose:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Stomach pain, vomiting, nausea, or diarrhea
  • Seizures
  • Extreme blood pressure (low or high)
  • Unresponsive pupils and light sensitivity
  • Fever

Find a Neurologist in NYC To Treat Your Cognitive Deficits

Now that you understand the mechanism of action for stimulants, you can make a more informed decision about whether they’re a good fit to treat your cognitive struggles. A team like Neurodiagnostics Medical P.C. offers compassionate and competitive care plans, ranging from cognitive rehab therapy to prescription medications. 

Do you want solutions for your neurological challenges? Call (347) 602-9530 to book an appointment (same-day appointments may be available). Our doctors accept most insurance plans, including workers’ compensation, no-fault, and PIP (personal injury protection).

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are the most common questions we get about stimulants’ role in treating cognitive deficits.

Can You Treat ADHD Without Stimulants?

Some people can successfully treat their ADHD symptoms without a stimulant. Newer FDA-approved options for medications include Strattera and Atomoxetine. Consult your primary care physician to determine which medication is best for you.

Can I Take Stimulants Even If I Don’t Have ADHD?

You can take stimulants even if you don’t have ADHD. Most people can safely use a moderate amount of caffeine, and doctors will prescribe stimulants for conditions beyond ADHD.

Are Stimulants Addictive?

Stimulants have a high potential for addiction, which is why they’re highly regulated, and doctors usually try other treatments first. estimates that about 2.1% of adults misuse prescription stimulants in the United States.

How Do Stimulants Interact With the Brain?

Stimulants interact with the brain primarily by increasing the available dopamine, which, in turn, increases your wakefulness, euphoria, and mania. Scientists refer to this as the mechanism of action.

About The Author

Picture of Ashwin Malhotra, M.D.

Ashwin Malhotra, M.D.

Ashwin Malhotra, M.D. is a highly respected neurologist based in New York City. With over 20 years of experience in the field of neurology, he has earned a reputation as a leading expert in the diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders and traumatic brain injuries. In addition to his clinical work, Dr. Malhotra is also a dedicated educator and researcher. He has published numerous articles in peer-reviewed medical journals and has presented his research at national and international conferences.

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