ADHD Treatment How Stimulants Work to Reduce ADHD Symptoms By Keath Low Keath Low Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD. Learn about our editorial process Updated on January 20, 2023 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Aron Janssen, MD Medically reviewed by Aron Janssen, MD LinkedIn Aron Janssen, MD is board certified in child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry and is the vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry Northwestern University. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Hero Images / Getty Images Stimulants are the most common type of medicine used to treat ADHD. They work by increasing the availability of certain chemicals in the brain, thus making the pathways in the brain work more effectively. Stimulants lessen ADHD symptoms in 70% to 80% of people who take them. How the Brain Works Our brains are made up of nerve cells called neurons, which are separated by tiny gaps called synapses. All brain and nervous system functions are based on how these neurons communicate across synapses. The neurons relay information to each other by sending chemical messengers or neurotransmitters across the synapses throughout the neural network. Neurotransmitters are produced within a neuron. The neuron releases the neurotransmitter and it travels into the synapse. The neurotransmitter may then be accepted by the next neuron attaching at a site called a receptor, thereby transmitting information from one nerve cell to another throughout the brain. In order for these pathways to work effectively so that the message gets through, the neuron must produce and release enough of the neurotransmitter. The neurotransmitter must also stay in the synapse long enough for it to bind to the receptor site. After the neurotransmitter is released, the excess portion is then reabsorbed by the neuron that produced it. What sometimes seems to happen in individuals with ADHD is the neurotransmitter is prematurely reabsorbed back into the neuron. When this occurs, that portion of the neural network can't relay messages in an adequate and timely way. How Stimulants Work Dopamine and norepinephrine play a key role in the areas of the brain responsible for regulating attention and executive function. Stimulant medication reduces ADHD symptoms by increasing the dopamine levels in your brain. It does this by slowing down how much dopamine is reabsorbed back into the neural network. As a result, more neurotransmitter is held in the synapse between neurons long enough for it to properly bind to the receptor, helping messages within the brain be more effectively transmitted and received. This improves activity and communication in those parts of the brain which operate on dopamine and norepinephrine and signal for specific tasks. Stimulant medications don't cure ADHD. Rather, they reduce symptoms while they are active in your system. Brain imaging studies have demonstrated that when you're on stimulant medication, there's increased metabolic activity in the prefrontal cortex, specific subcortical regions, and the cerebellum—all important centers for executive function. These areas of the brain appear more active when neurotransmitter levels are elevated. The differences in the way stimulants work may explain why some people with ADHD respond to one type of stimulant medication better than another. Methylphenidate Research suggests that methylphenidate increases levels of dopamine by blocking the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine in your brain. That is, it reduces how much of the neurotransmitter is reabsorbed into the neuron so that more is left in the synapse. It also promotes dopamine release from within the neuron, which sends more out into the synapse. Common methylphenidate-based stimulants include: Concerta (methylphenidate extended-release tablets) Focalin (dexmethylphenidate) Metadate (methylphenidate hydrochloride) Ritalin (methylphenidate) Amphetamines Amphetamines (another type of stimulant medication) mostly increase the release of dopamine and norepinephrine from their storage sites into the synapse. A less significant mechanism of amphetamines is slowing the reuptake of the neurotransmitters. Some amphetamine-based stimulants include: Adderall (amphetamine dextroamphetamine) Dyanavel XR (amphetamine) Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine dimesylate) Managing Side Effects of ADHD Medications 3 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Kolar D, Keller A, Golfinopoulos M, Cumyn L, Syer C, Hechtman L. Treatment of adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2008;4(2):389-403. doi:10.2147/ndt.s6985 Blum K, Chen AL, Braverman ER, et al. Attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder and reward deficiency syndrome. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2008;4(5):893-918. doi:10.2147/ndt.s2627 Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Kollins SH, et al. Evaluating Dopamine Reward Pathway in ADHD: Clinical Implications. JAMA. 2009;302(10):1084-1091. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.1308 Additional Reading Cleveland Clinic. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Stimulant Therapy. Updated February 23, 2016. Guzman F. Methylphenidate for ADHD: Mechanism of Action and Formulations. Psychopharmacology Institute. Updated June 27, 2019. By Keath Low Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist for ADHD Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.