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Ritalin Boosts Learning by Increasing Brain Plasticity, According to UCSF Research
Date:3/8/2010

s colleagues showed that Ritalin’s therapeutic action takes place in a brain region called the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of neurons known to be critical for learning and emotional memory.

"We found that a dopamine receptor, known as the D2 receptor, controls the ability to stay focused on a task – the well-known benefit of Ritalin,” said Patricia Janak, PhD, co-senior author on the paper. “But we also discovered that another dopamine receptor, D1, underlies learning efficiency.”

Janak is a principal investigator at the Gallo Center and a UCSF associate professor of neurology. Lead author of the paper is Kay M. Tye, PhD, a postdoctoral scientist at the Gallo Center when the research was carried out.

The research assessed the ability of rats to learn that they could get a sugar water reward when they received a signal – a flash of light and a sound. The scientists compared the behavior of animals receiving Ritalin with those that did not receive it, and found those receiving Ritalin learned much better.

However, they also found that if they blocked the dopamine D1 receptors with drugs, Ritalin was unable to enhance learning. And if they blocked D2 receptors, Ritalin failed to improve focus. The experiments established the distinct role of each of the dopamine receptors in enabling Ritalin to enhance cognitive performance.

In addition, animals that performed better after Ritalin treatment showed enhanced synaptic plasticity in the amygdala. Enhanced plasticity is essentially increased efficiency of neural transmission. The researchers confirmed this by measuring electrical activity in neurons in the amygdala after Ritalin treatment.

The research confirmed that learning and focus were enhanced when Ritalin was administered to animals in doses comparable to those used therapeutically in children.

“Although Ritalin is so frequently prescr
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