Intellectual Disability Medication

Updated: Nov 16, 2021
  • Author: Ari S Zeldin, MD, FAAP, FAAN; Chief Editor: Stephen L Nelson, Jr, MD, PhD, FAACPDM, FAAN, FAAP, FANA  more...
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Medication Summary

No specific pharmacologic treatment is available for cognitive impairment in the developing child or adult with intellectual disability (ID). [4] Medications, when prescribed, are targeted to specific comorbid psychiatric disease or behavioral disturbances.

Development of nootropic drugs that may alter cognitive processes positively has been of interest to researchers. Medications currently prescribed for dementia, such as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, are not accepted treatments for ID, and clinical trials have not been conducted in children. Phosphodiesterase inhibitors enhance cortical plasticity in an animal model of fetal alcohol syndrome.

Although vitamin and mineral therapies have gained popularity, their efficacy has not been established in clinical trials. A randomized controlled study of antioxidants and/or folinic acid for 18 months in 156 infants with Down syndrome found no evidence to support the use of these supplements in this population. [36]


CNS stimulants

Class Summary

The most common class of drugs prescribed in this population is the psychostimulants because of the diagnosis of attention deficit with or without hyperactivity disorder (ADHD/ADD) in 6-80%. Few studies are available on stimulants in people with MR/ID and, in many studies, those with MR/ID have been specifically excluded. Available studies indicate that benefits vary and significant adverse events, such as severe social withdrawal, increased crying, drowsiness, and irritability have been noted, especially at higher doses of methylphenidate (0.6 mg/kg). [5]

Methylphenidate hydrochloride (Ritalin, Metadate ER)

Stimulates cerebral cortex and subcortical structures.

Dextroamphetamine sulfate (Dexedrine) and racemic amphetamine (Adderall)

Increase amount of circulating dopamine and norepinephrine in cerebral cortex by blocking reuptake of norepinephrine or dopamine from synapse.


Alpha-adrenergic agonists

Class Summary

These agents are used commonly to modulate hyperactivity, aggression, tics, and dyssomnias. None of these drugs has an FDA-approved indication for MR/ID.

Clonidine hydrochloride (Catapres)

Agonist at presynaptic alpha2-adrenergic receptors within brain stem. Clonidine reduces norepinephrine release at these sites, reducing sympathetic outflow and enhancing parasympathetic outflow. May reduce aggression by increasing release of GABA in frontal cortex and other brain regions.

Guanfacine (Tenex)

Presynaptic alpha2-adrenergic receptor agonist that stimulates alpha2-adrenergic receptors in brain stem, activating an inhibitory neuron, which in turn decreases vasomotor tone and heart rate. Similar reduction in potentially negative impact on academic performance and cognitive function.


Neuroleptic drugs (antipsychotics)

Class Summary

The neuroleptic drugs are the most frequently prescribed agents for targeting behaviors such as aggression, self-injury, and hyperactivity in people with MR/ID. These indications are generally off-label for MR/ID and caution is advised. Increasingly, they are more likely to be reserved for the older child or adult in whom intensive behavioral intervention has failed. Likewise, the prevalence of comorbid psychiatric disorders in MR/ID increases with age. Neuroleptics interact with receptors for a variety of brain neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, histamine, and norepinephrine. Their ability to antagonize dopamine receptors appears to correlate with the efficacy of these drugs and imparts their antipsychotic properties. Likewise, antidopaminergic activity evokes extrapyramidal symptoms. Rarely, neuroleptic malignant syndrome may occur.

Risperidone (Risperdal)

Atypical antipsychotic with fewer adverse neurologic effects and less propensity for extrapyramidal movements (eg, pseudoparkinsonism, akathisia, acute dystonias, tardive dyskinesia).

Aripiprazole (Abilify)

A newer atypical antipsychotic, aripiprazole is indicated in acute bipolar mania and schizophrenia.