Meta-analysis Finds Limited Benefits from Computerized Cognitive Training

Computerized cognitive training (CCT) uses computers to try to strengthen cognitive skills and processes, reduce ADHD symptoms, and improve executive functioning. Executive functions are cognitive processes and mental skills that help individuals plan, monitor, and successfully execute their goals.

CCT programs target one or more cognitive processes such as motor inhibition, interference inhibition, sustained attention, and working memory. They ramp up task difficulty as performance improves. The goal is to harness the brain’s inherent adaptability (neuroplasticity) to boost performance. 

A European study team that previously probed the efficacy of CCT through meta-analysis had been unable to provide a robust estimate of effect size due to an insufficient number of high-quality trials with probably blinded outcomes. Noting that “there have been a considerable number of new RCTs [randomized controlled trials] published, many with larger samples, well-controlled designs and blinded outcomes,” the team performed an updated systematic review and meta-analysis.

They included RCTs with participants of any age who either had a clinical diagnosis of ADHD or were above cut-off on validated ADHD rating scales. RCTs had to have been peer-reviewed and published in an academic journal, and to have reported a validated outcome measure of ADHD symptoms, neuropsychological processes, and/or academic outcomes.

Fourteen RCTs with a combined total of 631 participants had probably blinded outcomes. Meta-analysis of these studies yielded no significant effect on either overall ADHD symptoms or hyperactivity/impulsivity symptoms. There was a marginally significant reduction in inattention symptoms, but the effect size was small. Between-study variation (heterogeneity) was negligible and there was no sign of publication bias.

Regarding academic outcomes, meta-analyses revealed no gain in arithmetic ability or reading fluency. There was a small but not statistically significant improvement in reading comprehension. Heterogeneity was minimal, with no indication of publication bias.

With two related exceptions, meta-analyses of RCTs measuring executive functions likewise reported no significant improvements in attention, interference inhibition (initial stage in controlling impulsive behavior), motor inhibition (follow-up stage in controlling impulsive behavior), non-verbal reasoning, processing speed, and set shifting (the ability to unconsciously shift attention between one task and another).

The exceptions were for working memory tasks. Meta-analysis of 15 RCTs with a combined 753 participants reported a highly significant small-to-medium effect size improvement in verbal working memory. A separate meta-analysis of nine RCTs with a total of 441 participants similarly reported a highly significant improvement in visuospatial working memory, this time with medium effect size.

The team concluded, “There was no empirical support for the use of CCT as a stand-alone intervention for ADHD symptoms based on the largest and most comprehensive meta-analysis of RCTs conducted to date. Small effects, of likely limited clinical importance, on inattention symptoms were found – but these were limited to the setting in which the intervention was delivered. Robust evidence of small- to-moderate improvements in visual-spatial and verbal STM/WM tasks did not transfer to other domains of executive functions or academic outcomes.”

Samuel J. Westwood, Valeria Parlatini, Katya Rubia, Samuele Cortese, Edmund J. S. Sonuga-Barke, and European ADHD Guidelines Group (EAGG), “Computerized cognitive training in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials with blinded and objective outcomes,” Molecular Psychiatry (2023), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41380-023-02000-7.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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