Meta-analysis suggests Covid-19 pandemic may lead to small increase in ADHD diagnoses, but high unexplained variability and signs of publication bias undercut the finding

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there were concerns about its disproportionate impact on children with ADHD. Canadian researchers decided to investigate whether symptoms of ADHD—such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity—had changed over the past three years due to the pandemic.

Research Approach

To explore this question, the researchers conducted a systematic review of peer-reviewed medical literature. They looked for studies that included children and adolescents aged three to eighteen and met the following criteria:

  1. Reported ADHD symptoms at least once before the pandemic started (before March 2020) or provided a retroactive report of pre-pandemic symptoms.
  2. Reported ADHD symptoms at least once after the pandemic began.

They found 18 studies with a total of 6,491 participants that could be combined for a meta-analysis. These studies were from four continents (North and South America, Asia, Europe) and ten countries (China, Japan, United States, Canada, Brazil, U.K., Germany, Spain, Italy, Lithuania).

Study Quality and Criteria

The researchers assessed the quality of the studies based on three criteria:

  1. Clear description of the research setting.
  2. Detailed description of data collection procedures.
  3. Statistical assessment of the reliability and validity of measurement tools.

Ten studies met all three criteria, and the remaining eight met two out of three.

Findings

The meta-analysis revealed a small but statistically significant increase in ADHD symptoms after the onset of the pandemic. However, there was a high degree of variability (heterogeneity) in the results between studies. The researchers couldn't identify any reasons for this variability. Factors such as gender, age, study design (prospective vs. retrospective), and the identity of the symptom evaluator (self or caregiver) didn't significantly affect the results. Additionally, the researchers did not report any specific outcomes based on the ten higher-quality studies alone.

Moreover, there was strong evidence of publication bias. The researchers did not perform a trim-and-fill analysis, which could have shown how publication bias might have influenced the effect size. Given the small effect size initially reported, this leaves the overall findings uncertain.

Conclusion

While the study found a slight increase in ADHD symptoms among children during the pandemic, the high variability in results and the evidence of publication bias make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions. More research is needed to understand the true impact of the pandemic on ADHD symptoms in children and adolescents.

Maria A. Rogers and Gordon MacLean, “ADHD Symptoms Increased During the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Attention Disorders (2023), 1-12, https://doi.org/10.1177/10870547231158750.

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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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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:

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  • 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:

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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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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.

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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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