March 13, 2024

Meta-analysis Finds Improvements in Executive Functioning From Some Non-Pharmacological ADHD Treatments

ADHD is associated with impaired executive functioning. Executive functions are a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. These are skills we use every day to learn, work, and manage daily life. Trouble with executive function can make it hard to focus, follow directions, and handle emotions. 

A Chinese study team searched for studies on non-pharmacological treatments of children and adolescents with ADHD aged 5 to 18 years intended to improve their executive functioning. 

An initial methodological weakness was the decision to combine studies using formal ADHD diagnoses based on professional psychiatric manuals (DSM 3/4/5 and ICD 10/11) and studies relying on other methods such as parent reports.

This lack of rigor in identifying ADHD is surprising given that the team used studies that directly measured executive functioning through neurocognitive tasks, excluding those that relied on parent- or teacher-reported questionnaires. 

67 studies involving 74 training interventions met the criteria. Meta-analysis of all these studies, encompassing a total of 3,101 participants, suggested medium-to-large effect size improvements in executive functioning. There was evidence of publication bias, but trim-and-fill adjustment increased the estimated effect size to large.

Nevertheless, there were further methodological shortcomings:

  • The meta-analysis mixed studies of substantially different interventions: cognitive training, executive function-specific curriculum, game-based training, neurofeedback, mindfulness, and physical exercise.
  • There was tremendous variation (heterogeneity) between study outcomes. Such inconsistency casts doubt on the outcome unless subgroup analysis can explain it. 

In this case, subgroup analysis mostly failed to explain the heterogeneity, with a single exception. Meta-analysis of the 16 studies with 744 participants that explored executive function-specific curriculum found small-to-medium effect size improvements, with no heterogeneity. 

Unfortunately, the team did not perform a separate publication bias analysis on this subgroup, just as it failed to do so on any of the other subgroups.

By far the strongest evidence of benefit came from meta-analysis of the 17 studies with 558 participants evaluating physical exercise. Here the outcome pointed to very large effect size improvements in executive functioning. Yet once again, heterogeneity was extremely high. Breaking this down further between aerobic exercise and cognitively engaged physical exercise made no difference. Both types had the same very high effect size, with very wide heterogeneity. Again, there was no separate evaluation of publication bias on this group.

Meta-analyses of thirteen studies of neurofeedback combining 444 participants, and fifteen studies of cognitive training encompassing 727 participants, both pointed to just-short-of-large effect size improvements in executive function. Meta-analysis of twelve studies of game-based training with 598 participants indicated medium effect size gains. But again, in all three subgroups there was great variation between studies, and no analysis of publication bias.

While these meta-analyses are suggestive of efficacy, especially for physical exercise interventions, their methodological shortcomings mean we will have to await more rigorous meta-analyses to draw any more settled conclusions. Moreover, these meta-analyses did not evaluate the adequacy of the control groups used in the trials, which is a big shortcoming given prior work showing that the effect of non-pharmacologic treatments are very weak or non-existent when adequate controls are used.

Hui Qiu, Xiao Liang, Peng Wang, Hui Zhang, and David H.K. Shum, “Efficacy of non-pharmacological interventions on executive functions in children and adolescents with ADHD: A systematic review and meta-analysis,” Asian Journal of Psychiatry (2023), 87:103692,

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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