A new study has indicated that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who take stimulant medications are not at greater risk of substance abuse later in life than untreated peers.
The findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Psychiatry were based on a meta-analysis of 15 previous studies, dating from 1980 to 2012, that included more than 2,500 participants with ADHD, some of whom were prescribed medication and some of whom were not.
Researchers at the University of California said they found children who took medications like Ritalin were neither more nor less prone to try or abuse alcohol, nicotine and other drugs compared to untreated ADHD kids.
"We found no association between the use of medication such as Ritalin and future abuse of alcohol, nicotine, marijuana and cocaine," said lead author Kathryn Humphreys, a doctoral candidate in UCLA's department of psychology.
As a result, researchers said their work provides "an important update" to the body of knowledge about drug abuse and ADHD medications.
The use of stimulant medication to treat ADHD is on the rise but remains controversial, with concerns that the practice could lead to a higher risk of addiction and abuse down the road for young users.
ADHD is believed to occur in five to 10 percent of US children. A recent analysis of US government data by the New York Times found that as many as one in five teenage boys is diagnosed with the disorder.
The last meta-analysis on the topic was published 10 years ago and was based on six studies, finding that kids who were prescribed ADHD meds were much less likely to develop alcohol and substance abuse disorders later in life.
"The present meta-analysis included substantially more studies, including several unpublished studies," said the JAMA Psychiatry study.
The average age of the children studied was eight years old when the research began, with the most recent follow-up assessment at age 20.
The patients came from the US states of California, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, as well as Germany and Canada.
A previous study by Humphreys and colleagues in 2011 found children with ADHD were two to three times more likely than children without ADHD to develop substance abuse problems in adolescence and adulthood.
Since that study compared children with ADHD to children without ADHD, the findings are not at odds with the current meta-analysis, which focused on children with ADHD who were either medicated or not.
"For parents whose major concern about Ritalin and Adderall is about the future risk for substance abuse, this study may be helpful to them," Humphreys said.
"We found that on average, their child is at no more or less at risk for later substance dependence. This does not apply to every child but does apply on average."