October 5, 2023

Can Computers Train the Brain to Cure ADHD?

It sounds like science fiction, but scientists have been testing computerized methods to train the brains of ADHD people to reduce both ADHD symptoms and cognitive deficits such as difficulties with memory or attention.  

Two main approaches have been used: cognitive training and neurofeedback. Cognitive training methods ask patients to practice tasks aimed at teaching specific skills, such as retaining information in memory or inhibiting impulsive responses.

Currently, results from ADHD brain studies suggest that the ADHD brain is not very different from the non-ADHD brain, but that ADHD leads to small differences in the structure, organization, and functioning of the brain. The idea behind cognitive training is that the brain can be reorganized to accomplish tasks through a structured learning process. Cognitive retraining helps people who have suffered brain damage, so it was logical to think it might help the types of brain differences seen in ADHD people. Several software packages have been created to deliver cognitive training sessions to ADHD people.

Neurofeedback was applied to ADHD after it had been observed, in many studies, that people with ADHD have unusual brain waves as measured by the electroencephalogram (EEG). We believe that these unusual brain waves are caused by the different ways that the ADHD brain processes information. Because these differences lead to problems with memory, attention, inhibiting responses, and other areas of cognition and behavior, it was believed that normalizing the brain waves might reduce ADHD symptoms.

In a neurofeedback session, patients sit with a computer that reads their brain waves via wires connected to their heads. The patient is asked to do a task on the computer that is known to produce a specific type of brain wave.  The computer gives feedback via sound or a visual on the computer screen that tells the patient how 'normal' their brainwaves are. By modifying their behavior, patients learn to change their brain waves. The method is called neurofeedback because it gives patients direct feedback about how their brains are processing information.

Both cognitive training and neurofeedback have been extensively studied. If you've been reading my blogs about ADHD, you know that I play by the rules of evidence-based medicine. My view is that the only way to be sure that a treatment works is to see what researchers have published in scientific journals. The highest level of evidence is a meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials. This ensures that many rigorous studies have been conducted and summarized with a sophisticated mathematical method.  

Although both cognitive training and neurofeedback are rational methods based on good science, meta-analyses suggest that they do not help reduce ADHD symptoms. They may be helpful for specific problems, such as problems with memory, but more work is needed to be certain if that is true. The future may bring better news about these methods if they are modified and become more effective. You can learn more about non-pharmacologic treatment for ADHD from a book I recently edited: Faraone, S. V. &Antshel, K. M. (2014). ADHD: Non-Pharmacologic Interventions. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am 23, xiii-xiv.

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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