April 7, 2021

Adult Onset ADHD: Does it Exist? Is it Distinct from Youth Onset ADHD?

There is a growing interest (and controversy) in 'adult-onset ADHD. No current diagnostic system allows for the diagnosis of ADHD in adulthood, yet clinicians sometimes face adults who meet all criteria for ADHD, except for age at onset. Although many of these clinically referred adult-onset cases may reflect poor recall, several recent longitudinal population studies have claimed to detect cases of adult-onset ADHD that showed no signs of ADHD as a youth (Agnew-Blais, Polanczyk et al. 2016, Caye, Rocha, et al. 2016). They conclude, not only that ADHD can onset in adulthood, but that childhood-onset and adult-onset ADHD may be distinct syndromes(Moffitt, Houts, et al. 2015)

In each study, the prevalence of adult-onset ADHD was much larger than the prevalence of childhood-onset adult ADHD). These estimates should be viewed with caution.  The adults in two of the studies were 18-19 years old.  That is too small a slice of adulthood to draw firm conclusions. As discussed elsewhere (Faraone and Biederman 2016), the claims for adult-onset ADHD are all based on population as opposed to clinical studies.
Population studies are plagued by the "false positive paradox", which states that, even when false positive rates are low, many or even most diagnoses in a population study can be false.  

Another problem is that the false positive rate is sensitive to the method of diagnosis. The child diagnoses in the studies claiming the existence of adult-onset ADHDused reports from parents and/or teachers but the adult diagnoses were based on self-report. Self-reports of ADHD in adults are less reliable than informant reports, which raises concerns about measurement error.   Another longitudinal study found that current symptoms of ADHD were under-reported by adults who had had ADHD in childhood and over-reported by adults who did not have ADHD in childhood(Sibley, Pelham, et al. 2012).   These issues strongly suggest that the studies claiming the existence of adult-onset ADHD underestimated the prevalence of persistent ADHD and overestimated the prevalence of adult-onset ADHD.  Thus, we cannot yet accept the conclusion that most adults referred to clinicians with ADHD symptoms will not have a history of ADHD in youth.

The new papers conclude that child and adult ADHD are "distinct syndromes", "that adult ADHD is more complex than a straightforward continuation of the childhood disorder" and that adult ADHD is "not a neurodevelopmental disorder". These conclusions are provocative, suggesting a paradigm shift in how we view adulthood and childhood ADHD.   Yet they seem premature.  In these studies, people were categorized as adult-onset ADHD if full-threshold add had not been diagnosed in childhood.  Yet, in all of these population studies, there was substantial evidence that the adult-onset cases were not neurotypical in adulthood (Faraone and Biederman 2016).  Notably, in a study of referred cases, one-third of late adolescent and adult-onset cases had childhood histories of ODD, CD, and school failure(Chandra, Biederman, et al. 2016).   Thus, many of the "adult onsets" of ADHD appear to have had neurodevelopmental roots. 

Looking through a more parsimonious lens, Faraone and Biederman(2016)proposed that the putative cases of adult-onset ADHD reflect the existence of subthreshold childhood ADHD that emerges with full threshold diagnostic criteria in adulthood.   Other work shows that subthreshold ADHD in childhood predicts onsets of full-threshold ADHD in adolescence(Lecendreux, Konofal, et al. 2015).   Why is onset delayed in subthreshold cases? One possibility is that intellectual and social supports help subthreshold ADHD youth compensate in early life, with decompensation occurring when supports are removed in adulthood or the challenges of life increase.  A related possibility is that the subthreshold cases are at the lower end of a dimensional liability spectrum that indexes risk for onset of ADHD symptoms and impairments.  This is consistent with the idea that ADHD is an extreme form of a dimensional trait, which is supported by twin and molecular genetic studies(Larsson, Anckarsater, et al. 2012, Lee, Ripke, et al. 2013).  These data suggest that disorders emerge when risk factors accumulate over time to exceed a threshold.  Those with lower levels of risk at birth will take longer to accumulate sufficient risk factors and longer to onset.

In conclusion, it is premature to accept the idea that there exists an adult-onset form of ADHD that does not have its roots in neurodevelopment and is not expressed in childhood.   It is, however, the right time to carefully study apparent cases of adult-onset ADHD to test the idea that they are late manifestations of a subthreshold childhood condition.

Agnew-Blais, J. C., G.V. Polanczyk, A. Danese, J. Wertz, T. E. Moffitt and L. Arseneault (2016)."Persistence, Remission and Emergence of ADHD in Young Adulthood:Resultsfrom a Longitudinal, Prospective Population-Based Cohort." JAMA.Caye, A., T. B.-M. Rocha, L. Luciana Anselmi, J. Murray, A. M.B. Menezes, F. C. Barros, H. Gonçalves, F. Wehrmeister, C. M. Jensen, H.-C.Steinhausen, J. M. Swanson, C. Kieling and L. A. Rohde (2016). "ADHD doesnot always begin in childhood: E 1 vidence from a large birth cohort." JAMA.
Chandra, S., J. Biederman and S. V. Faraone (2016)."Assessing the Validity of  the Ageat Onset Criterion for Diagnosing ADHD in DSM-5." J Atten Disord.
Faraone, S. V. and J. Biederman (2016). "CanAttention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Onset Occur in Adulthood?" JAMAPsychiatry.
Larsson, H., H. Anckarsater, M. Rastam, Z. Chang and P.Lichtenstein (2012). "Childhood attention-deficit hyperactivity disorderas an extreme of a continuous trait: a quantitative genetic study of 8,500 twinpairs." J Child Psychol Psychiatry53(1): 73-80.
Lecendreux, M., E. Konofal, S. Cortese and S. V. Faraone(2015). "A 4-year follow-up of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder ina population sample." J Clin Psychiatry76(6): 712-719.
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News Tuesday: Fidgeting and ADHD

A recent study delved into the connection between fidgeting and cognitive performance in adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Recognizing that hyperactivity often manifests as fidgeting, the researchers sought to understand its role in attention and performance during cognitively demanding tasks. They designed a framework to quantify meaningful fidgeting variables using actigraphy devices.

(Note: Actigraphy is a non-invasive method of monitoring human rest/activity cycles. It involves the use of a small, wearable device called an actigraph or actimetry sensor, typically worn on the wrist, similar to a watch. The actigraph records movement data over extended periods, often days to weeks, to track sleep patterns, activity levels, and circadian rhythms. In this study, actigraphy devices were used to measure fidgeting by recording the participants' movements continuously during the cognitive task. This data provided objective, quantitative measures of fidgeting, allowing the researchers to analyze its relationship with attention and task performance.)

The study involved 70 adult participants aged 18-50, all diagnosed with ADHD. Participants underwent a thorough screening process, including clinical interviews and ADHD symptom ratings. The analysis revealed that fidgeting increased during correct trials, particularly in participants with consistent reaction times, suggesting that fidgeting helps sustain attention. Interestingly, fidgeting patterns varied between early and later trials, further highlighting its role in maintaining focus over time.

Additionally, a correlation analysis validated the relevance of the newly defined fidget variables with ADHD symptom severity. This finding suggests that fidgeting may act as a compensatory mechanism for individuals with ADHD, aiding in their ability to maintain attention during tasks requiring cognitive control.

This study provides valuable insights into the role of fidgeting in adults with ADHD, suggesting that it may help sustain attention during challenging cognitive tasks. By introducing and validating new fidget variables, the researchers hope to standardize future quantitative research in this area. Understanding the compensatory role of fidgeting can lead to better management strategies for ADHD, emphasizing the potential benefits of movement for maintaining focus.

July 16, 2024

Identifying Autistic-Like Symptoms in Children with ADHD

NEWS TUESDAY: Identifying Autistic-Like Symptoms in Children with ADHD

A recent study investigated the presence of autistic-like symptoms in children diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Given the overlapping social difficulties in both ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), distinguishing between the two disorders can be challenging. This study aims to pinpoint specific patterns of autistic symptoms in children with ADHD, comparing them to those with ASD using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, 2nd edition (ADOS-2).

The research involved 43 school-age children divided into two groups:

  • ADHD Group (25 children): Initially referred for ASD symptoms but later diagnosed with ADHD.
  • ASD Group (18 children): Children diagnosed with ASD.

Researchers used ADOS-2 to evaluate differences in communication deficits, social interaction challenges, and repetitive behaviors between the two groups. The study also compared IQ, age, ADOS-2 domain scores, and externalizing/internalizing problems.

Key Findings:

  • Significant differences were found between the ADHD and ASD groups in ADOS-2 domain scores, including Social Affect, Restricted and Repetitive Behavior, and Total Score.
  • On an individual item level, children with ADHD displayed similar atypical behaviors as those with ASD in social-communication areas such as "Pointing" and "Gestures".
  • Both groups showed comparable frequencies in behaviors like "Stereotyped/idiosyncratic words or phrases", "Mannerisms", and "Repetitive interests and behaviors".

The study highlights the importance of identifying transdiagnostic domains that overlap between ADHD and ASD. The transdiagnostic domain refers to a set of symptoms or behaviors that are common across multiple diagnostic categories rather than being specific to just one. Identifying these domains in mental health practice and in psychological research is crucial to understanding, properly diagnosing, and treating conditions with overlapping features. This understanding could pave the way for tailored treatments addressing the specific needs of children with ADHD, particularly those exhibiting autistic-like symptoms.

July 9, 2024

Non-stimulant Medications for Adults with ADHD: An Overview

NEW STUDY: Non-stimulant Medications for Adults with ADHD: An Overview

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in adults is commonly treated with stimulant medications such as methylphenidate and amphetamines. However, not all patients respond well to these stimulants or tolerate them effectively. For such cases, non-stimulant medications provide an alternative treatment approach.

Recent research by Brancati et al. reviews the efficacy and safety of non-stimulant medications for adult ADHD. Atomoxetine, a well-studied non-stimulant, has shown significant effectiveness in treating ADHD symptoms in adults. The review highlights the importance of considering dosage, treatment duration, safety, and the presence of psychiatric comorbidities when prescribing atomoxetine.

Additionally, certain antidepressants, including tricyclic compounds, bupropion, and viloxazine, which possess noradrenergic or dopaminergic properties, have demonstrated efficacy in managing adult ADHD. Antihypertensive medications, especially guanfacine, have also been found effective. Other medications like memantine, metadoxine, and mood stabilizers show promise, whereas treatments like galantamine, antipsychotics, and cannabinoids have not yielded positive results.

The expert opinion section of the review emphasizes that while clinical guidelines primarily recommend atomoxetine as a second-line treatment, several other non-stimulant options can be utilized to tailor treatments based on individual patient needs and comorbid conditions. Despite these advancements, the authors call for further research to develop and refine more personalized treatment strategies for adults with ADHD.

This review underscores the growing landscape of non-stimulant treatment options, offering hope for more personalized and effective management of ADHD in adults.

June 25, 2024