PEP Topic 

Methylphenidate is a type of psychostimulant used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy. Methylphenidate is closely related to amphetamine and is a schedule II drug. It is taken by mouth and available by numerous different brand names. It can be habit forming, and individuals can develop tolerance to its effects. Methylphenidate use for patients with cancer has been evaluated in anxiety, depression, fatigue, and cognitive impairment. Methylphenidate has been evaluated alone and as part of multimodal approaches combined with other interventions, such as exercise.

Effectiveness Not Established

Systematic Review/Meta-Analysis

Gong, S., Sheng, P., Jin, H., He, H., Qi, E., Chen, W., . . . Hou, L. (2014). Effect of methylphenidate in patients with cancer-related fatigue: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PloS One, 9(1), e84391.

doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0084391


To assess the safety and efficacy of methylphenidate for cancer-related fatigue. Secondary outcomes included depression, cognition, and adverse effects.

TYPE OF STUDY: Meta-analysis and systematic review

Search Strategy:

DATABASES USED: PubMed. EMBASE, PsycINFO, Cochrane Collaboration

KEYWORDS: Methylphenidate, dimethylphenidate, Ritalin, cancer, fatigue, asthenia, tiredness, and randomized controlled trial

INCLUSION CRITERIA:  Randomized controlled trials, adults older than 18 years, the trial examined efficacy of methylphenidate on fatigue, and results were sufficient to calculate effect sizes


Literature Evaluated:


EVALUATION METHOD AND COMMENTS ON LITERATURE USED: The Jadad scale was used for quality assessment.

Sample Characteristics:

  • N (studies) = 5
  • KEY SAMPLE CHARACTERISTICS: Three studies included mixed tumor types, one was in prostate, and one was in patients with primary brain tumor.

Phase of Care and Clinical Applications:

PHASE OF CARE: Mutliple phases of care


Meta-analysis was done with studies grouped according to the measure of fatigue that was used. In studies using the FACT-F (three studies), results showed a favorable effect of methylphenidate with a mean difference of -3.13 and a signficant overall effect (p -0.01). In studies using the BFI, results showed a favorable effect with mean difference of -0.69, but the Z test of overall effect was not significant. Methylphenidate had no effect on depression (two studies) or cognitive impairment (two studies). Studies varied widely in terms of the duration of treatment. Treatment for greater than four weeks was superior compared to placebo. However, treatment for less than four weeks did not show a significant effect compared to placebo. Rates of adverse effects between those getting methylphenidate and those getting a placebo were not significantly different. Those receiving methylphenidate had significantly more vertigo, anxiety, and nausea.


Results suggest that treatment with methylphenidate for at least four weeks is effective in reducing cancer-related fatigue and is not associated with a high rate of adverse effects. Treatment with methylphenidate did not improve depression or cognitive impairment. Use of different methods of measurement of fatigue showed different results.


Few studies were included, and some of these had very small sample sizes. Included studies did not provide sufficient information on relevant concomitant conditions of patients, such as sleep disorders and anxiety. Dosages and dosage increase approaches with methylphenidate varied.

Nursing Implications:

Findings suggest that treatment with methylphenidate for at least four weeks can be helpful in managing cancer-related fatigue. However, the most appropriate dosages are not clear. Patients can experience side effects, and if methylphenidate is used, nurses need to monitor patients for side effects. Further large studies are needed to strengthen evidence related to effects and side effects of methylphenidate.

Rozans, M., Dreisbach, A., Lertora, J.J., & Kahn, M.J. (2002). Palliative uses of methylphenidate in patients with cancer: A review. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 20, 335–339.

doi: 10.1200/JCO.20.1.335

Search Strategy:



Literature Evaluated:

COMMENTS ON LITERATURE USED: Articles published from 1966–2000 related to methylphenidate use in patients with cancer or in palliative care

Sample Characteristics:



The evidence in the review found that methylphenidate is useful for the treatment of depression in a variety of malignancies, with more than 80% improvement in depression and side effects in less than 20%.

Research Evidence Summaries

Homsi, J., Nelson, K.A., Sarhill, N., Rybicki, L., LeGrand, S.B., Davis, M.P., & Walsh, D. (2001). A phase II study of methylphenidate for depression in advanced cancer. American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care, 18, 403–407.

doi: 10.1177/104990910101800610

Study Purpose:

A phase II study of methylphenidate for depression in patients with advanced cancer

Intervention Characteristics/Basic Study Process:

Patients who were identified as being depressed by a palliative medicine attending physician were treated with methylphenidate twice daily. Doses were titrated per regimen until response was obtained. Patients were assessed during a telephone call or bedside interview. The study timeframe was seven days.

Sample Characteristics:

  • N = 30
  • MALES: 50%, FEMALES: 50%
  • KEY DISEASE CHARACTERISTICS: Primary cancer sites: breast (5), esophagus (4), head and neck (4), lung (4), pancreas (4), colorectal (2), and other (7)
  • OTHER KEY SAMPLE CHARACTERISTICS: Inclusion criterion was the answer of “yes” to the question, “Are you depressed?” with no current or previous antidepressant use.


  • SITE: One center was included.
  • SETTING TYPE: Inpatients and outpatients were enrolled in the palliative care program.

Measurement Instruments/Methods:

  • Question, “Are you depressed?”
  • Other symptoms (anorexia, concentration problems, fatigue, and sedation) were assessed by a categorical rating (none, mild, moderate, or severe) before starting methylphenidate and daily thereafter.
  • Pain was assessed using a 0–10 scale.
  • Known side effects of methylphenidate also were assessed.
  • Satisfaction question: ”Are you satisfied with the way the drug affected your mood?” was asked at the end of the study on day seven.


Depression was resolved in all patients, most on day three. The maximum daily dose needed was 20 mg. Other symptoms also improved, mean pain scores significantly decreased, and all who responded to treatment were satisfied with therapy.


  • Small sample with no randomization
  • Long-term efficacy and side effect data are needed.
  • Single-site data are less transferable than multi-site data.