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Ritalin vs Adderall

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Comparison between Ritalin and Adderall, medications for ADHD.

In this article, we will discuss the basic difference between Ritalin and Adderall. Let’s start by analyzing the chemical difference between the two: 

Ritalin is a central nervous system stimulant. It affects chemicals in the brain and nerves that contribute to impulse control and hyperactivity. 

It travels to brain cells and stops them from absorbing norepinephrine and dopamine, the brain chemicals related to mental focus, motivation, and enjoyment.  

Adderall also does the same thing.  However, it goes inside brain cells and makes them drain out dopamine. Thus, it not only stops the absorption of the chemicals but also directly enhances its levels. 


Ritalin is one of the most common ADHD medications for improving cognition and boosting focus and attention. It is also used to treat narcolepsy and postural orthostatic tachycardia symptoms.

Other medical uses of Ritalin are off-label; these include its use in the treatment of obesity, depression, and lethargy especially when other medications have failed.

Ritalin contains methylphenidate which has a similar structure to the amphetamines in Adderall. While the active ingredient of Ritalin is similar to those of Adderall, it is sufficiently different as to provide a good alternative to the amphetamines.

Methylphenidate is a psychostimulant which produces its benefits through its actions on the central nervous system.

The summary of methylphenidate’s action on the CNS is that it increases both the concentration and duration of action of the two neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine, at the junctions of the neurons.

However, Ritalin provides a targeted benefit for people diagnosed with ADHD. It specifically produces its beneficial effects on the prefrontal cortex. This specificity is important because it reduces both the risk of drug abuse and also the side effects of methylphenidate.

Scientists now know that at the doses in which methylphenidate is supplied in Ritalin, the drug targets the prefrontal cortex rather than every part of the brain. This means that dopamine and norepinephrine levels and activities in parts of the brain controlling arousal and addiction are unaffected.

In fact, the methylphenidate in Ritalin is supplied at a dose lower than the one which can generate any significant addiction potential. Therefore, the drug does not act as a stimulant.

Instead, Ritalin boosts the activity of these neurotransmitters primarily at the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain directly involved in maintaining mental focus, attention and impulse control.

Methylphenidate boosts the activity of dopamine and norepinephrine in the prefrontal cortex in two important ways:

  • It binds to both dopamine transporter and norepinephrine transporter at the synapses of the neurons. These transporters are responsible for removing dopamine and norepinephrine from the junctions between the neurons. By binding to them, methylphenidate prevents them from acting and so both dopamine and norepinephrine are left to act longer.
  • It stimulates the release of more dopamine and norepinephrine in the prefrontal cortex.

While these activities of methylphenidate are similar to the amphetamines in Adderall, the release of the neurotransmitters is more extensive for amphetamines than methylphenidate.

Another difference to note is that while Ritalin binds to and blocks the transporters from removing dopamine and norepinephrine, Adderall substitutes its amphetamines for the neurotransmitters by allowing them to be removed instead.

Ritalin and ADHD

Ritalin is the most commonly prescribed medication for ADHD or attention disorders in children and adults. 

Ritalin and ADHD have become pretty much synonyms, and their association makes a huge difference in doctors’ prescribing habits. 

Ritalin is a chemical substance derived from amphetamine and has very similar biochemical behavior. 

It is an effective treatment for ADHD.  Nearly 55% of those who use this medication experience improvement in ADHD symptoms. 

Combined with other treatment and therapies, this figure might go up to 70% or even more. 


Adderall contains four related amphetamine salts. These are amphetamine aspartate monohydrate, amphetamine sulfate, dextroamphetamine sulfate, and dextroamphetamine saccharate.

Adderall is available for treating ADHD both as an instant release formulation and an extended-release formulation. However, only the instant release form is used in the treatment of narcolepsy.

The amphetamines are also psychostimulants which act on the central nervous system. However, dextroamphetamine is a lot more potent than levoamphetamine on the central nervous system (except in some ADHD children where the levo form was discovered to provide more benefits).

Levoamphetamine is however included in Adderall because it has a faster onset of action and produces more enduring therapeutic effects than the dextro form.

Furthermore, some researchers believe that the levo form is responsible for increasing the levels and activities of norepinephrine while dextroamphetamine is responsible for doing the same for dopamine.

Amphetamines act as substrates for dopamine and norepinephrine transporters at neuronal synapses. Unlike, methylphenidate in Ritalin, they do not deactivate the transporters but instead, compete with dopamine and norepinephrine as candidates for removal from the synapses.

Adderall and ADHD

Adderall includes a mix of amphetamine salts, and it is known to work as well as Ritalin. It is available in IR and XR form. 

Since its introduction in the 90s, Adderall has become increasingly popular; and it is just a little stronger than Ritalin. 

Some studies have shown that while kids need to take 2 instant-release Ritalin tablets to cover a day at school, just 1 instant-release tablet of Adderall works equally well. 

Some other studies have shown that Adderall has a slight advantage over Ritalin in alleviating certain ADHD symptoms. 

One study showed that Adderall was highly effective in keeping people focused on a task and improving their concentration.  However, this wasn’t a precise clinical trial and only examined with 37 patients. 

Dr. Tuckman, a renowned clinician who has treated hundreds of adults with ADHD has this to say: 

Nearly one-third people with ADHD react best to Ritalin, one-third to an amphetamine-type medication such as Adderall, and one-third react well to both. 

So, it can be concluded that though Adderall is slightly more powerful than Ritalin, both are equally helpful for treating ADHD, and some people react better to one or the other. 

Which is Better?

Ritalin and Adderall are both effective for treating ADHD. They have similar efficacies although some studies find Adderall to be slightly more potent and longer lasting than Ritalin. The choice of which to by will, however, be determined by which is more effective in individual cases.

There are few differences to note, though. First, Adderall with its mixed amphetamine salts seems to have a higher abuse potential than Ritalin. 

Secondly, although the use of psychostimulants reduces appetite and so leads to weight loss, this side effect is more frequently observed with Adderall than Ritalin.

Are There Any Side Effects? 

Vomiting and nausea are common side effects of both Adderall and Ritalin. 

Some other common side effects include anxiety, insomnia, skin rashes, migraine headaches, dry mouth, and agitation. 

Adderall is also associated with a risk of increasing certain heart ailments such as heart palpitations, racing heart rate, and increased blood pressure. 

If you notice any of these side effects, stop the medication immediately and consult your healthcare practitioner. 

For more information, read our articles 4 Ritalin Alternatives, 3 Adderall Alternatives, Adderall vs Vyvanse and Adderall vs Strattera.

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