Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who take stimulants such as Ritalin tend to feel the drugs help them control their behavior and do not turn them into "robots" as many skeptics assume, a study found on Monday.
The research, which for the first time asked children taking ADHD drugs what they felt about their treatment and its effects, found that many said medication helped them manage their impulsivity and make better decisions.
"With medication, it's not that you're a different person. You're still the same person, but you just act a little better," said Angie, an 11-year-old from the United States who took part in the study and was quoted in a report about its findings.
The results are likely to further fuel the debate in the United States and Europe about whether children with ADHD, some as young as four years old, should be given stimulants.
ADHD is one of the most common childhood disorders in the United States, where an average 9 percent of children between the ages of five and 17 are diagnosed with it each year. In Britain experts estimate that between 5 and 10 percent of children and adolescents have ADHD.
Symptoms of the disorder include difficulty staying focused, hyperactivity and problems with controlling disruptive or aggressive behavior.
"ADHD is a very emotive subject which inspires passionate debate," said Ilina Singh, a biomedical ethicist from King's College London who led the research.
"Everyone seems to have an opinion about the condition, what causes it, how to deal with children with ADHD, but the voices of these children are rarely listened to."
"Who better to tell us what ADHD is like and how medication affects them than the children themselves?"
Singh's study, which was funded by medical charity the Wellcome Trust, involved interviewing children from 151 families in Britain and the United States to examine some of the ethical and societal issues surrounding ADHD - in particular the use of drug treatments such as Ritalin.
"Drugged into acquiescence"
Ritalin, known generically as methylphenidate, is sold by the Swiss drugmaker Novartis and is widely used in developed countries to help children with ADHD concentrate better and control impulsivity.
Without effective treatment, children with ADHD can be disruptive at school and fall behind, and adolescents may engage in impulsive, risky behavior.
Singh, who presented her findings in a report called "Voices" at a briefing in London, pointed to disputes surrounding prescribing stimulant drugs for children with ADHD.
Some critics argue the medications "turn children into robots", she said, or say that ADHD sufferers are being "drugged into acquiescence".
But according to the results of the study, such concerns are largely unfounded, Singh said.
"The assumed ethical harms of stimulant medications were largely not supported by this study," she said. "Children value medication because it puts them into a space where they can make good moral decisions."
Singh added that the study's findings were "in no way a blanket endorsement of the use of stimulant-based medicines" for ADHD, but stressed they also showed that assumptions about what ADHD drugs did appeared to be "hurting children more than the drugs".
Singh said all the medicated children in the study were taking either Novartis' Ritalin, or Concerta, a longer-acting version of the same drug made by Johnson & Johnson.
Other common drugs used to treat ADHD include Shire's Adderall and Vyvanse, and Eli Lilly's Strattera.