A Brief History of ADHD Medications and Penn

Author: Lynn Carroll, C’93

Seventy-five years ago, Penn neurology professor Matthew Molitch started it all with research funded by Smith Kline & French.  His 1930s study, “The Effect of Benzedrine Sulfate on Children Taking the new Stanford Achievement Test,” tested teenage boys in a New Jersey home for delinquents, some of whom were given the stimulant Benzedrine, some who received a placebo.  He found that the boys who scored lowest on the test initially made the largest improvements after taking a higher dose of the drug.

Fast forward to today, and ADHD medications are routinely prescribed to children and youth, many of whom have demonstrated symptoms for years and find the medication immensely helpful. Alumnus Alan Schwarz, C’90, recently wrote a well-researched, thoughtful article for The New York Times about students who use (or abuse) ADHD medications to “focus during tests.”  As a math major who wrote for the DP, Schwarz is ideally suited to asking the right questions, sifting through the data, and expressing results in compelling language.

“Now I have to worry about this, too? Really? This shouldn’t be what they need to do to get where they want to, ” said Dodi Sklar, after listening to her ninth-grade son, Jonathan, describe how some classmates abuse stimulants. Photo by Lisa Wiltse for The New York Times.

Just behind the Quad in the Goddard Building, psychology professor Dr. Martha Farah is asking questions about some of the same issues as director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society.  Neurology professor Dr. Anjan Chatterjee M’85 is also a leader in neuroethics in the area of brain enhancement, or as he calls it, “cosmetic neurology.”  The Gazette featured their work in a 2009 article, “Are Better Brains Better?

Penn researchers continue to ask questions and seek answers.  Dr. Farah and her colleagues are asking questions like Are Prescription Stimulants “Smart Pills”? Dr. Chatterjee continues to grapple with where exactly the line is between neurological treatment and enhancement.  Drs. Anthony Rostain and J. Russell Ramsay head Penn Medicine’s Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program.  The first National ADHD Youth Leadership Summit will be held July 7 in Houston Hall.  Stay tuned, as the next 75 years should prove to be very enlightening.


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Filed under Alumni Perspective, Lynn Carroll

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