How does Strattera Work?By
I have recently started posting to this blog. I have really appreciated the great response to it, and I am watching the comments to find questions which may be worth answering on the blog. As my subscribers know, I have a database of thousands of questions on ADHD, and I will use these as well to draw for content. To become a subscriber, please go to: The ADHD Doctor.
Tim wrote a comment the other day with a question: “I’ve recently started taking Strattera (2 weeks ago). Would you please comment on its effectiveness, how long it may take (should I already be noticing a difference if it is right for me?), why its not prescribed for kids (or is it or when it might be acceptable to use it if it is effective), and what I should be looking for in regards to figuring out whether or not it’s working?”
Let’s answer this one.
Strattera is the first non-stimulant medication which has come out for ADHD. It is FDA (and Health Canada – for us Canadians ) approved for the treatment of ADHD from the age of 6 years old and up. It is approved for Childhood ADHD, Adolescent ADHD as well as Adult ADHD. As a Psychiatrist who deals predominantly with children and teens, I occassionally like to smile at the idea of there being ‘Geriatric ADHD’. While I cannot comment on that at length, I am aware of adults who have started Strattera in their sixties with good effect.
Stratter’s other name is: Atomoxetine.
How does Strattera work?
Strattera selectively blocks the reuptake of norepinephrine (or noradrenaline) in the brain. This, in and of itself, can increase the ability to pay attention and improve hyperactivity. The interesting thing is that Strattera gradually has a downstream effect on the dopamine in the brain, specifically in the frontal lobe. Now, I am throwing around a lot of medical terms very quickly here. Allow me to explain:
The frontal lobe is the ‘command center’ of the brain. This is the area that new brain imaging studies show is most affected in individuals with ADHD. This command center allows people to use their ‘executive functions’, which are the thinking skills which allow for: sustained concentration, impulse control, delayed gratification, etc.
Norepinephrine and Dopamine are called ‘neurotransmitters’. These are little brain chemicals which jump from one nerve cell to the next in the brain to carry a message through the brain.
In individuals with ADHD, research shows that they have ‘underactivity’ of the dopamine and norepinephrine in the frontal lobes.
ADHD medication generally increases the activity of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine in the frontal lobe, and in so doing, they increase the attention, and decrease hyperactivity and impulsivity (i.e. they increase these ‘executive functions’.
So, coming back to Strattera.
Strattera brought some very unique features to ADHD treatment which were not there prior to its release.
The benefits of strattera include:
- 24 hour symptom control – although it takes the medication about 3-4 weeks to ‘kick in’, when it does, it works 24 hours per day, contrary to the stimulants which work up to 12 hours per day
- No abuse potential at all: because there is no increase of dopamine in the part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, Strattera cannot be abused to provide any pleasure
- No increase in tics: because Strattera doesn’t increase dopamine in the part of the brain called the striatum, there is no increase in motor or vocal tics with its use. So, for people with ADHD and Tourette’s, this is likely the best ADHD medication
- Good for ADHD + Depression or ADHD + Anxiety: A recent study showed that Strattera helped depression and anxiety (when they were present in combination with ADHD) and the ADHD. This can often mean that someone could take one medication for their condition – i.e. Strattera, instead of needing to take two medications – i.e. one for ADHD and one for the anxiety or depression
- May help for nocturnal enuresis: Strattera causes some ‘urinary retention’. This means that for some children who wet themselves at night, this medicine may lead to more dry nights. This is not a main treatment use for strattera, but it can be a side benefit
- May not cause ‘personality changes’: Some of my teenage patients complain that their stimulant medicine helps their concentration, but may take away their personality, or spontaneity. Strattera is a good option for this, as it does not clinically appear to cause these results
Strattera works for approximately 75% of people who take it. There are some data which suggest that if one takes it after having had treatment with a stimulant, that this may yield a slightly lower response rate. Why is this? It is my clinical impression that this does not relate to the fact that the stimulant has ‘changed the brain’, but rather the fact that as in many conditions in medicine, if something doesn’t respond completely to the first treatment used, it is much less likely to respond to the second treatment – i.e. it is ‘harder to treat’.
How can you tell if strattera is working?
Generally, one should notice an improvement in concentration, and a decrease in hyperactivity and impulsivity. The benefits should generally last for 24 hours -and be more ‘steady’ than they are with the stimulant medicines. As mentioned above, it takes about 3-4 weeks for Strattera to start working, so one needs a little patience.
The long acting nature of strattera means that the benefits of the medication last into the evening – meaning that if a teen has homework or a project to be done, they can still have the benefits of the medication to help them late at night.
Also, there are a lot of data that people with ADHD have many more troubles driving – increased tickets, motor vehicle accidents, etc. So, if a teen (or adult) is going to drive home late at night after a party -it is better if their ADHD medication is still working in their system.
The last part of your question, Tim, was why this medicine isn’t prescribed for kids. The answer is (as I am sure that you have gathered by now) that it is used for kids too.
There are some safety issues with Strattera, and these will be addressed in an upcoming blog post.
Thanks for the great question Tim, and I encourage other readers of the blog to comment on this or any other post. Please remember, that I cannot comment on every question, or every post, but I will try.