Stimulants are often the primary source of medication for ADHD and related disorders. Medications such as methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta, Daytrana), Adderall, Vyvanse and the like are often the first line of defense and choice of prescription for ADHD for many practicing physicians. However, certain drawbacks exist to these medications. Perhaps the three most common concerns are cardiovascular effects, stimulant induced sleep difficulties, and appetite suppression and resulting weight loss.
One of the difficulties in assessing the effects of ADHD medications on sleep deficits in children is that it relies heavily on parental reports and observations. Unfortunately, the overall accuracy of these parental (as well as teacher ratings) has been called in to question by several recent findings. More info on this is given at the bottom of the post.
Here are some of the highlights obtained from the Sangal study. A number of parameters and categories were investigated, but I have only included ones which were either statistically significant or ones which I personally found to be noteworthy:
- A delayed onset of sleep was seen in Methylphenidate.
- However, REM sleep (an important factor in overall sleep quality) was reached faster with Methylphenidate and slower with Atomoxetine.
- Additionally, a slight increase in the percentage of sleep time spent in REM was seen with methylphenidate treatment.
- Fewer sleep disruptions (partial or full, as in awakenings) were seen with both medications, but the effects were even greater in the methylphenidate group.
- When a child did awaken during the sleep cycle, the children medicated with methylphenidate were able to fall back asleep much faster. Note this contrast to the increased time to fall asleep initially for the methylphenidate group.
Why the pronounced difference between the two ADHD medications?
While there is still a fair amount of debate surrounding the exact cause of different impacts of these ADHD medications on sleep, the different biological targets and modes of action may offer some clues. For example, while methylphenidate primarily targets the neuro-signaling agent dopamine in brain regions such as the striatum and nucleus accumbens, Strattera (atomoxetine) instead targets another neurotransmitter called norepinephrine.
It appears that the different neurochemical targets and specific brain regions impacted by the two medications are responsible for the differences. For example, we have previously mentioned in another post on gene variations and attention control that the cingulate region of the brain, which essentially acts as the brain's gear shifter, has a high density of receptors for dopamine, the very chemical that methylphenidate targets. It is possible that changes in dopamine levels from methylphenidate may indirectly impact the "gear shifting" ability of the key brain region of the cingulate. We have previously discussed that an overactive cingulate region can lead to difficulties changing focus or transitioning between topics or activities, while an underactive cingulate can lead to difficulty maintaining focus on a particular thought or state.
Putting this into context of our sleep and ADHD medication discussion, it is also worth noting that the Sangal paper mentioned that children who took the methylphenidate had a more difficult time getting up in the morning and settling down into a pre-bedtime routine than the Strattera group. In other words, it seems like the methylphenidate group had trouble with transitions. As a result, this blogger hypothesizes that the transitions may be caused, at least in part, by the increased activity of the cingulate region of the brain and it's high density of dopamine targets, which see increased activities driven by a boost in free dopamine levels from the methylphenidate. In other words, I suggest the possibility that methylphenidate induces a state of the cingulate "gear" shifter becoming overactive and getting stuck in one routine (either the waking or sleeping state) and having trouble moving to another (getting out of bed or falling asleep). Further supporting this hypothesis is the data from the table above showing that the methylphenidate treatment group appears to be more inert (i.e. fewer sleep interruptions, and a quicker return to a previous sleeping state).
Finally, it is worth noting that the different methods of sleep data acquistion are far from perfect. It appears that there is at least some discord between the methods of measurement.
Final notes on the methylphenidate vs. atomoxetine debate on ADHD and sleep:
While the current trends in medication prescription still shy away from stimulants such as methylphenidate for fear of insomnia, the findings of some of the recent studies show that overall sleep quality in ADHD individuals may actually improve (in spite of the initial sleep delays) with methylphenidate treatments instead of non-stimulant medications such as Strattera. I personally anticipate further sleep studies in the near future which will confirm several of these findings.