Stimulants appear to have a calming effect on people with ADHD. They work through many different mechanisms and affect dopamine and norepinephrine, making it easier for individuals to concentrate and reduce impulsive behavior.

Dopamine helps support memory, motivation, and learning. Many researchers believe that inadequate dopamine in the brain makes activities less rewarding and therefore less motivating, which can cause distraction and hyperactivity.

Stimulants, such as dopamine and norepinephrine, may also work to promote calmness and focus.

Read on to learn more about how stimulant medications can help people with ADHD.

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Amphetamines and methylphenidate, the two types of ADHD stimulants, work by preventing the reuptake of norepinephrine and dopamine. This allows the brain to use more dopamine.

When there is insufficient dopamine in a person’s brain, challenging tasks may not feel rewarding, decreasing their motivation. Dopamine also supports learning and memory and may help explain some of the distraction and impulsivity that people with ADHD experience.

A 2022 double-blind crossover trial that included 27 children with ADHD provides more context about how ADHD medications work. In the study, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the effects of methylphenidate on brain regions that play a role in controlling attention.

Researchers detected unusual activity in the nucleus accumbens, which is a brain region that plays an important role in dopamine signaling. This provides significant support for the theory that dopamine is important for treating and understanding ADHD.

Additionally, researchers found that children taking methylphenidate scored better on a cognitive test. Their nucleus accumbens showed more activity.

The study’s authors believe that medication may help children sustain their attention longer and increase the reward of sustained attention.

Doctors commonly prescribe two stimulants that can treat ADHD: amphetamines and methylphenidate. Both groups of drugs work by increasing levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.

Dopamine helps synthesize norepinephrine, so inadequate levels of one may mean inadequate levels of the other.

A 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis found that stimulants were superior to placebo. However, the performance of each group of stimulants varied depending on the metric researchers used.

A person may need to work with their doctor to try different stimulants, experiment with dosage, or determine appropriate drug timing to get the best results.

Learn more about stimulant medications for ADHD.

A 2023 article reported that stimulants work for about 70% of people with ADHD.

However, some cannot take stimulants, dislike their side effects, or find no relief. When these drugs do not work, a doctor may prescribe antidepressants or alpha agonists.

Alpha agonists

Alpha agonists, such as clonidine and guanfacine, are drugs that work on the brain’s norepinephrine system. This may help relieve some ADHD symptoms.

Research suggests they are more effective in children than adults.

However, these drugs can have harmful side effects such as sleepiness, dizziness, and low blood pressure. Health experts have also linked clonidine, in combination with stimulants, to a small number of sudden deaths.


Wellbutrin (bupropion) is a type of antidepressant that may help with ADHD, though more research is necessary to confirm its benefits. It can affect both norepinephrine and dopamine. The two are closely related, as dopamine synthesizes norepinephrine.

A person can talk with their doctor about what type of medication may be appropriate for them.

Learn more about Wellbutrin for ADHD.

Some questions to ask a doctor include:

  • What treatment options are likely to be most effective for me?
  • What are the risks of treatment?
  • Do I have any comorbidities that increase the risk of treatment?
  • How will we monitor my health and well-being during treatment?
  • What is the next option if treatment does not work?
  • Should we combine treatments or change to a different treatment if the first intervention does not work?
  • Are there lifestyle or other changes that could improve treatment results?

Stimulants for ADHD are not sedatives. Instead, they act on neurotransmitters that influence motivation, learning, and reward.

This can make it easier for a person to concentrate, feel motivated to complete tasks, and feel a sense of reward and accomplishment when they remain on task. This may reduce distraction, impulsivity, hyperactivity, and other ADHD symptoms.

People interested in trying stimulants for ADHD can consult a doctor.