May 15, 2021

Myths About The Treatment of ADHD

Myth:  ADHD medications "anesthetize" ADHD children.
The idea here is that the drug treatment of ADHD is no more than a chemical straightjacket intended to control a child's behavior to be less bothersome to parents and teachers. After all, everyone knows that if you shoot up a person with tranquilizers, they will calm down.

Fact:  ADHD medications are neither anesthetics nor tranquilizers.

The truth of the matter is that most ADHD medications are stimulants. They don't anesthetize the brain; they stimulate it. By speeding up the transmission of dopamine signals in the brain, ADHD medications improve brain functioning, which in turn leads to an increased ability to pay attention and control behavior.  The non-stimulant medications improve signaling by norepinephrine. They also improve the brain's ability to process signals. They are not sedatives or anesthetics. When taking their medication, ADHD patients can focus and control their behavior to be more effective in school, work, and relationships.  They are not "drugged" into submission.

Myth: ADHD medications cause drug and alcohol abuse
We know from many long-term studies of ADHD children that when they reach adolescence and adulthood, they are at high risk for alcohol and drug use disorders. Because of this fact, some media reports have implied that their drug use was caused by treatment of their ADHD with stimulant medications.

Fact: ADHD medications do not cause drug and alcohol abuse
Some ADHD medications indeed use the same chemicals that are found in street drugs, such as amphetamine.  But there is a very big difference between these medications and street drugs. When street drugs are injected or snorted, they can lead to addiction, but when they are taken in pill form as prescribed by a doctor, they do not cause addiction. When my colleagues and I examined the world literature on this topic, we found that rather than causing drug and alcohol abuse, stimulant medicine protected ADHD children from these problems later in life. One study from researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts General Hospital found that the drug treatment of ADHD reduced the risk for illicit drug use by84 a percent. These findings make intuitive sense. These medicines reduce the symptoms of the disorder that lead to illicit drug use. For example, an impulsive ADHD teenager who acts without thinking is much more likely to use drugs than an ADHD teen whose symptoms are controlled by medical drug treatment. After we published our study, other work appeared. Some of these studies did not agree that ADHD medications protected ADHD people from drug abuse, but they did not find that they caused drug abuse.

Myth:  Psychological or behavioral therapies should be tried before medication.  
Many people are cautious about taking medications, and that caution is even stronger when parents consider treatment options for their children.  Because medications can have side effects, shouldn't people with ADHD try to talk therapy before taking medicine?

Fact:  Treatment guidelines suggest that medication is the first-line treatment.
The problem with trying talk or behavior therapy before medication is that medication works much better.  For ADHD adults, one type of talk therapy(cognitive behavioral therapy) is recommended, but only when the patient is also taking medication.  The multimodal treatment of ADHD (MTA) study examined this issue in ADHD children from several academic medical centers in the United States. That study found that treating ADHD with medication was better than treating it with behavior therapy. Importantly, behavior therapy plus medication was no more effective than medication alone. That is why treatment guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Children and Adolescents recommend medicine as a first-line treatment for ADHD, except for preschool children. ADHD medications indeed have side effects, but these are usually mild and typically do not interfere with treatment.  And don't forget about the risks that a patient faces when they do not use medications for ADHD.  These untreated patients are at risk for worsening ADHD symptoms and complications.

Myth: Brain abnormalities of ADHD patients are caused by psychiatric medications
A large scientific literature shows that ADHD people have subtle problems with the structure and function of their brains.  Scientists believe that these problems are the cause of ADHD symptoms. Critics of ADHD claim that these brain problems are caused by the medications used to treat ADHD.  Who is right?

Fact: Brain abnormalities are found in never medicated ADHD patients.
Alan Zametkin, a scientist at the US National Institute of Mental Health, was the first to show brain abnormalities in ADHD patients who had never been treated for their ADHD.  He found that some parts of the brains of ADHD patients were underactive. His findings could not be due to medication because the patients had never been medicated. Since his study, many other researchers have used neuroimaging to examine the brains of ADHD patients. This work confirmed Dr. Zametkin’s observation of abnormal brain findings in unmediated patients. Reviews of the brain imaging literature have concluded that the brain abnormalities seen in ADHD cannot be attributed to ADHD medications.

Wilens, T., Faraone, S. V.,Biederman, J. &Gunawardene, S. (2003). Does Stimulant Therapy of Attention-Deficit hyperactivity disorder Beget Later Substance Abuse?  Aneta-Analytic Review of the Literature.Pediatrics111, 179-185.
Humphreys, K. L., Eng, T. &Lee, S. S.
(2013).Stimulant Medication and Substance Use Outcomes: A Meta-analysis. JAMA psychiatry, 1-9.
Chang, Z., Lichtenstein, P., Halldner,L., D'Onofrio, B., Serlachius, E., Fazel, S., Langstrom, N. & Larsson, H.
(2014). Stimulant ADHD medication and risk for substance abuse. J Child Psychol Psychiatry55,878-85.
Nakao, T., Radua, J., Rubia, K. &Mataix-Cols, D.
(2011 ). Gray matter volume abnormalities in ADHD: voxel-based meta-analysis exploring the effects of age and stimulant medication. Am J Psychiatry168, 1154-63.
Rubia, K., Alegria, A. A., Cubillo, A. I., Smith, A. B., Brammer, M.J. &Radua, J.
(2014). Effects of stimulants on brain function inattention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Biol Psychiatry76, 616-28.
Spencer, T. J., Brown, A., Seidman, L. J., Valera, E. M., Makris, N., Lomedico, A., Faraone, S. V. &Biederman,J.
(2013).Effect of psychostimulants on brain structure and function in ADHD: a qualitative literature review of magnetic resonance imaging-based neuroimaging studies. J Clin Psychiatry74, 902-17.

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Using Video Analysis and Machine Learning in ADHD Diagnosis

NEWS TUESDAY: Machine Learning and The Possible Future of Diagnosing ADHD

Typically, clinicians rely on both subjective and objective observations, patient interviews and questionnaires, as well as reports from family and (in the case of children) parents and teachers, in order to diagnose ADHD. 

A group of researchers are aiming to find a diagnostic test that is purely objective and utilizes recent technological advancements. The method they developed involves analyzing videos of children in outpatient settings, focusing on their movements. The study included 96 children, half of whom had ADHD and half who did not.

How It Works

  1. Video Recording: Children were recorded during their outpatient visits.
  2. Skeleton Detection: Using a tool called OpenPose, the researchers detected and tracked the children's skeletons (essentially a map of their body's movements) in the videos.
  3. Movement Analysis: The researchers analyzed these movements, looking at 11 different movement features. They specifically focused on the angles of different body parts and how much they moved.
  4. Machine Learning: Six different machine learning models were used to see which movement features could best distinguish between children with ADHD and those without.

Key Findings

  • Movement Differences: Children with ADHD showed significantly more movement in all the features analyzed compared to children without ADHD.
  • Thigh Angle: The angle of the thigh was the most telling feature. On average, children with ADHD had a thigh angle of about 157.89 degrees, while those without ADHD had an angle of 15.37 degrees.
  • High Accuracy: Using thigh angle alone, the model could diagnose ADHD with 91.03% accuracy. It was very sensitive (90.25%) and specific (91.86%), meaning it correctly identified most children with ADHD and correctly recognized most children without it.

This new method could potentially provide a more objective way to diagnose ADHD, reducing the reliance on subjective observations and reports. It can help doctors make more accurate diagnoses, ensuring that those who need help get it and that those who don't aren't misdiagnosed.

May 28, 2024

Understanding Attention to Social Images in Children with ADHD and Autism

NEWS TUESDAY: Understanding Attention to Social Images in Children with ADHD and Autism

In the field of mental health, professionals often use a variety of tools to diagnose and understand neurodevelopmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). One such tool is the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), which is specifically designed to help diagnose autism. However, the ADOS wasn't originally intended for children who have both autism and ADHD, though this comorbidity is not uncommon.

A recent study aimed to explore how children with ADHD, autism, or both, pay attention to social images, such as faces. The study focused on using eye-tracking technology to measure where children direct their gaze when viewing pictures, and how long they look at certain parts of the image. This is important because differences in visual attention can provide insights into the nature of these disorders.

The researchers included 84 children in their study, categorized into four groups: those with ASD, those with ADHD, those with both ASD and ADHD, and neurotypical (NT) children without these conditions. During the study, children were shown social scenes from the ADOS, and their eye movements were recorded. The ADOS assessment was administered afterward. To ensure that the results were not influenced by medications, children who were on stimulant medications for ADHD were asked to pause their medication temporarily.

The results of the study showed that children with ASD, whether they also had ADHD or not, tended to spend less time looking at faces compared to children with just ADHD or NT children. The severity of autism symptoms, measured by the Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ), was associated with reduced attention to faces. Interestingly, ADHD symptom severity, measured by Conners' Rating Scales (CRS-3), did not correlate with how children looked at faces.

These findings suggest that measuring visual attention might be a valuable addition to the assessment process for ASD, especially in cases where ADHD is also present. The study indicates that if a child with ADHD shows reduced attention to faces, it might point to additional challenges related to autism. The researchers noted that more studies with larger groups of children are needed to confirm these findings, but the results are promising. They hope that such measures could eventually enhance diagnostic processes and help in managing the complexities of cases involving comorbidity of ADHD and ASD.

This research opens up the possibility of using eye-tracking as a supplementary diagnostic tool in the assessment of autism, providing a more nuanced understanding of how attentional differences in social settings are linked to ASD and ADHD.

May 14, 2024

NEW STUDY: RASopathies Influences on Neuroanatomical Variation in Children

NEW STUDY: RASopathies Influences on Neuroanatomical Variation in Children

This study investigates how certain genetic disorders, called RASopathies, affect the structure of the brain in children. RASopathies are conditions caused by mutations in a specific signaling pathway in the body. Two common RASopathies are Noonan syndrome (NS) and neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), both of which are linked to a higher risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The researchers analyzed brain scans of children with RASopathies (91 participants) and compared them to typically developing children (74 participants). They focused on three aspects of brain structure: surface area (SA), cortical thickness (CT), and subcortical volumes.

The results showed that children with RASopathies had both similarities and differences in their brain structure compared to typically developing children. They had increased SA in certain areas of the brain, like the precentral gyrus, but decreased SA in other regions, such as the occipital regions. Additionally, they had thinner CT in the precentral gyrus. However, the effects on subcortical volumes varied between the two RASopathies: children with NS had decreased volumes in certain structures like the striatum and thalamus, while children with NF1 had increased volumes in areas like the hippocampus, amygdala, and thalamus.

Overall, this study highlights how RASopathies can impact the development of the brain in children. The shared effects on SA and CT suggest a common influence of RASopathies on brain development, which could be important for developing targeted treatments in the future.

In summary, understanding how these genetic disorders affect the brain's structure can help researchers and healthcare professionals develop better treatments for affected children.

April 30, 2024