An interesting piece of work from Berridge's lab here at the University of Wisconsin shows that the cognition and attention enhancing drug Ritalin (methylphenidate, MPH) fine-tunes the functioning of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is involved in attention, decision-making and impulse control. While it enhances the efflux of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine in PFC, it appears to have minimal effects elsewhere.
Only working memory–enhancing doses of MPH increased the responsivity of individual PFC neurons and altered neuronal ensemble responses within the PFC. The effects were not observed outside the PFC (i.e., within somatosensory cortex). In contrast, high-dose MPH profoundly suppressed evoked discharge of PFC neurons. These observations suggest that preferential enhancement of signal processing within the PFC, including alterations in the discharge properties of individual PFC neurons and PFC neuronal ensembles, underlie the behavioral/cognitive actions of low-dose psychostimulants.