Text: Bertrand Tappy
Photo: DR

Every molecule tells a story: Ritalin

Ritalin is over sixty years old but is inextricably linked to children and teenagers.

It all began in 1944, when the chemist Leandro Panizzon synthesised methylphenidate at Ciba’s laboratories in Basel. Like the vast majority of chemists of the day, he decided to test his discovery on the first person he could find, his wife Marguerite (nicknamed “Rita”). And she rapidly noticed the effects.

Rita felt the most significant changes while playing tennis, as her game improved after taking the drug. The molecule acts quickly on the nervous system and improves concentration. A patent was filed, and methylphenidate was marketed to combat fatigue and confusion. This was in the heyday of post-war Europe. “Medical discoveries exploded after World War II, offering hope
that science would find a remedy for any somatic or psychological condition,” says Thierry Buclin, chief of the Clinical Pharmacology Division at the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV). “But in the latter case, most drugs do not treat the problem. At best, they alter the disorder or bring relief. We know now that they can also aggravate it.”

A few years after its launch, Ritalin was discovered to improve the day-to-day behaviour of children suffering from attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity (ADHD). At first, prescriptions were reserved for the most serious cases.

And the results were sometimes spectacular. Over the years, the number of children taking the medication increased at an equally astonishing rate. Some parts of the United States reached startling proportions, with nearly 20% of school children

on Ritalin. “An anti-Ritalin movement emerged in the late 1990s, with people accusing the drug of all sorts of things,” Thierry Buclin says, “stunted growth, heart problems, addiction, drug abuse, suicidal thoughts, etc.” At the same time, stimulants have in recent years been found effective in treating some adult forms of ADHD.

The controversy rages on and new studies on ADHD surface. But more than anything, the use of Ritalin reflects the disagreement between regions, social groups, institutions, doctors and families on the fundamental issues about standardising behaviour and influencing it chemically. Whether our children are viewed as misbehaved, uncontrollable, rebellious, high-potential or hyperactive, they continue to wonder what we expect
of the next generation. Can the answers to those questions come in the form of a tiny pill? ⁄