In the UK, this psychostimulant, which mimics the properties of cocaine, is a class B drug (class A when in solution). By 1999, the number of prescriptions being issued for Ritalin reached 131,000 per year, up from 6000 a year in 1994 - representing more than 2 per cent of all UK children. This figure is likely to be a low estimate as it does not include the prescriptions given out in private practices, young-offender centres or care homes.
There is a lack of research to support the use of Ritalin to control ADHD, and a load of evidence pointing to a battery of worrying side-effects, including gastrointestinal and liver effects, drug dependency, agitation, abnormal thoughts and psychotic depression (Ethical Hum Sci Serv, 1999; 1: 13-33).
Despite this, US drug companies have successfully persuaded health authorities and psychiatrists of Ritalin’s supposed benefits. In 1998, at a conference on ADHD, the US National Institutes of Health stated that there were 'no data to indicate that ADHD is due to a brain malfunction', despite the assertion by the Ritalin lobby that it works by correcting a 'brain disorder'.
With autism, the drug of choice is secretin, a polypeptide hormone involved in gastric function. Using this hormone for autism is based on sturdier principles than for MPH as it acknowledges the link between a malfunctioning digestive system and the condition. Secretin facilitates enzymatic digestion in the small intestine. It may, however, disrupt digestion in the stomach.
A common cause
Although ADHD, learning disabilities and autism are supposedly separate conditions, their similar symptoms suggest a possible common cause. Roughly half of all symptoms of ADHD and dyslexia overlap and, along with autism, they share a number of common physical problems - a tendency to allergies/sensitivities, skin problems, sleeping disorders and poor motor coordination.
Some pioneers in the field of learning disabilities have postulated that all have a common base: certain fundamental nutritional deficiencies because of higher-than-normal biochemical needs.
Sally Bunday, herself the mother of a hyperactive child, and her mother Irene Colquhoun were the first to hypothesise an association between nutrition and ADHD (Med Hypoth, 1981; 7: 673-9). They found a link between ADHD and asthma, eczema and other allergy-type conditions. These children also suffered from excessive thirst, and dry skin and hair, consistent with a deficiency of essential fatty acids (EFAs).
Their idea has since been verified by numerous studies concluding that an EFA deficiency is also a major factor in other, interrelated disorders. UK researchers have found further evidence that fatty-acid and membrane-phospholipid abnormalities are both involved in a range of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders, including ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism - illnesses that are now said to fall within a ‘phospholipid spectrum’ of disorders.
What this research suggests is that those who have so-called learning problems, as well as the more traditional mental problems, have a fundamental difficulty in processing fats and, therefore, need more of it than usual to function normally. This would explain the overlapping symptoms, the tendency to run in families and the symptom similarities with the more traditional psychiatric disorders (Prostagl Leukotr Essent Fatty Acids, 2000; 63: 1-9).
EFAs play an essential role in brain structure and function. Around 20 per cent of the dry weight of the brain and 30 per cent of the retina are made of highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFAs). As EFAs cannot be synthesised by the body, they must be supplied by the diet in the form of linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, precursors from which other fatty acids, such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and compounds are synthesised that are vital to proper brain functioning, nerve synapses and photoreceptors. Deficiencies of these omega-3 fats have been linked to visual and mental problems (J Pediatr, 1994; 125: S39-47; Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 1986; 83: 4021-5).