A qualitative review of issues arising in the use of psycho-stimulant medications in patients with ADHD and co-morbid substance use disorders

Curr Med Res Opin. 2008 May;24(5):1345-57. doi: 10.1185/030079908x280707. Epub 2008 Apr 1.


Objective: This review addresses the relationship between attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and substance use disorders (SUDs), with an emphasis on factors that determine the potential for psychostimulant abuse. Strategies for identification and treatment of patients with ADHD who are at risk for, or have, co-morbid SUD are also addressed.

Research design and methods: The article was based on a qualitative review of current literature addressing co-morbid ADHD and SUD.

Discussion: Adolescent and adult patients with ADHD are at increased risk for SUD, as well as a number of other psychiatric disorders. Psychostimulant agents like methylphenidate (MPH) and mixed amphetamine salts (MAS) are effective first-line pharmacotherapies for ADHD; however, they are Schedule II controlled substances with a potential for abuse. Evidence suggests that treatment of ADHD during childhood with stimulant agents may reduce the risk of developing SUD later on. Factors associated with the highest risk of SUD in patients with ADHD include co-morbid antisocial personality disorder, bipolar disorder, an eating disorder, severe ADHD and/or antisocial behavior symptoms, and dropping out of school. Treatment initiation during adolescence or young adulthood also has been linked to increased risk of polydrug use and non-medical stimulant use, a pattern of behavior consistent with a risk of SUD development. Treatment plans for patients with ADHD and co-morbid SUD should include behavioral interventions, careful monitoring, and when appropriate, pharmacotherapy. When oral formulations of psychostimulants are used at recommended doses and frequencies, they are unlikely to yield effects consistent with abuse potential in patients with ADHD. Long-acting stimulant formulations and non-stimulants, like atomoxetine or bupropion, have a lower potential for abuse, and provide several safe and effective treatment options for the development of a comprehensive management plan for patients with co-morbid ADHD and SUD.

Conclusions: The present review is neither exhaustive nor systematic. Moreover, the reviewed studies vary widely with regards to methodology and patient populations. In light of these limitations, several conclusions are still warranted. Patients with ADHD are at increased risk for SUD. Under certain conditions, psychostimulants may be a pharmacologic option in the treatment of patients with co-morbid ADHD and SUD. However, clinicians should be mindful of the risks and benefits of this treatment approach in a high-risk population and should also bear in mind the labeling guidelines when working with this co-morbidity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adrenergic Uptake Inhibitors / adverse effects*
  • Adrenergic Uptake Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Adult
  • Age Distribution
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / diagnosis
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / drug therapy*
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / epidemiology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants / adverse effects*
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants / therapeutic use
  • Child
  • Comorbidity
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Probability
  • Reference Values
  • Risk Assessment
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Sex Distribution
  • Substance Abuse Detection / methods
  • Substance-Related Disorders / diagnosis
  • Substance-Related Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology*


  • Adrenergic Uptake Inhibitors
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants