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The Science of ADHD: Research Update

ADHD has been in the news quite a bit this past week. Today we will discuss scientific current events relating to suicide and stimulant medication, drug addiction and ADHD, and the link between the disorder and childhood exposure to anesthesia. This is an opportunity for us to delve more deeply into the neurobiological nature of ADHD, to move beyond armchair psychology and into the nuts and bolts of scientific evidence.

Suicidal Ideation and Focalin

A few cases of suicidal ideation among teens taking the ADHD stimulant medication, Focalin, have prompted some experts to advocate putting a warning label on the drug. Before you throw your medication in the trash, there are a few things you need to know. During a 6-year period, there were 8 reports of suicidal ideation among children or adolescents who took the drug. Four of these appeared to be linked to use of the drug, since symptoms resolved once the medicine was stopped. The 4 patients were all boys and between the ages of 8 and 11. Approximately 1.8 million children had this medication prescribed over a 6-year period. So, while suicidal ideation is an incredibly serious issue, in this context it is also an incredibly rare one. No cases of actual suicide have been reported. What this situation does reinforce, however, is that many ADHD medications are incredibly powerful. Parents need to research side effects and watch out for them. Medicating your child should not be taken lightly.

Self-Control, Drug Addiction, and ADHD

A study in Science finds that cocaine addicts have abnormalities in areas of the brain involved in self-control. And these abnormalities appear to predate any drug abuse. Researchers discovered abnormalities in fronto-striatal brain systems implicated in self-control in both cocaine-dependent individuals and their biological siblings who have no history of chronic drug abuse; these findings support the idea of an underlying neurobiological component for stimulant drug addiction. This particular brain circuit seems to be involved in a lot of common disorders, such as ADHD, in which individuals struggle to control their response to stimuli that distract them . With this new evidence, the link between untreated ADHD and substance abuse becomes even clearer. Once again, research continues to mount that difficulties in ADHD derive from differences in the brain!

ADHD and Childhood Exposure to Anesthesia

Two recently-reported studies appear to show a link between the administration of anesthesia to children and an increased risk for developing ADHD. The data for these studies came from the Rochester Epidemiology Project. Researchers analyzed school records of children who were born between 1976 and 1982 in Minnesota. Out of the 341 cases reviewed in the studies, children with no anesthesia exposure or just a single exposure to anesthesia had ADHD at a rate of about 7.3 percent. Children who had two or more exposures had ADHD at a rate of 17.9 percent. Researchers also tried to adjust for other risk factors, such as gestational age, sex, birth weight, and comorbid health conditions. To put this information in context, ADHD risk appears to increase with numerous other experiential risk factors, including: fetal alcohol exposure, low birth weight, cerebral palsy, as well as early exposure to lead and other toxicants. Since ADHD is a neurobiological condition, it should come as no surprise that substances that impact the neurobiological environment carry the potential to play a role in the development of ADHD. However, these experiential factors are all rather uncommon. The greatest “risk factor” for developing ADHD is having a parent or sibling with the disorder.

11 Responses to “The Science of ADHD: Research Update”

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  2. Chuck says:

    I have always wondered about the link between ADHD and addiction. Thanks for giving me some food for thought. Any recommendations for books on this topic?

    • kevin says:

      Yes, the link between ADHD, untreated, and substance abuse is long established. In terms of the neurobiology of ADHD, I highly recommend Joel Nigg’s book, What Causes ADHD? And yes, Nigg is his last name as odd as that may sound. His book covers all the bases and is great for non-scientists.

  3. Shelby says:

    Kevin, you have made my life so much easier in the way of my children. both of them have ADHD, reading your blog has made me understand neurobiological nature of ADHD. Please write about this topic more often

    • kevin says:

      Shelby, I am glad I could help. Yes, it does make it easier when we focus on ADHD as a neurological condition and not a choice to be lazy. Of course, creative solutions become imperative. I will be talking in the near future on just that topic.

  4. Mary Antonelli says:

    Kevin, thanks once again for enlightening me. Your blogs are always short, sweet and to the point. You have really helped me understand ADHD.

    • kevin says:

      Mary, I appreciate your vote of confidence. ADHD is one of the great passions of my life. I am of the mind that if we seek to understand it, we will find the strengths and gifts in it.

  5. Diana Foster says:

    This is actually quite interesting, I was born premature. When my youngest son was born I had been given pethidine very late in the labour stage. To this day I believe that it had an affect on my son. He wasn’t breathing properly and was rushed out and placed in an incubater for the best part of the day.
    We are both extremely sensitive to anesthetics and tend to be out far longer than other people.
    i had tried to look up the longterm effects of pethidine on babies but not come accross any long term studies.
    I have 2 boys, my eldest i believe has adhd although he was not diagnosed with it, but hwas diagnosed with ocd as an adult. my youngest was diagnosed with adhd, asd, ocd and bordering on oppositional defiance disorder. to me they are both special and now they are both grown up i often laugh about some of the things we’ve gone through over the years, eventhough at the time it was a struggle and often hard work.

    • kevin says:

      Thanks for sharing your personal story, Diana. I suspect there are many more moms like you who will now come forward, given this new information.

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