Although no immediate cure is in sight, a new understanding of ADHD may be just over the horizon. Using a variety of research tools and methods, scientists are beginning to uncover new information on the role of the brain in ADHD and effective treatments for the disorder Such research will ultimately result in improving the personal fulfillment and productivity of people with ADHD.
For example, the use of new techniques like brain imaging to observe how the brain actually works is already providing new insights into the causes of ADHD. Other research is seeking to identify conditions of pregnancy and early childhood that may cause or contribute to these differences in the brain. As the body of knowledge grows, scientists may someday learn how to prevent these differences or at least how to treat them.
NIMH and the U.S. Department of Education are cosponsoring a large national study–the first of its kind–to see which combinations of ADHD treatment work best for different types of children. During this 5-year study, scientists at research clinics across the country will work together in gathering data to answer such questions as: Is combining stimulant medication with behavior modification more effective than either alone? Do boys and girls respond differently to treatment? How do family stresses, income, and environment affect the severity of ADHD and long-term outcomes? How does needing medicine affect children’s sense of competence, self-control, and self-esteem? As a result of such research, doctors and mental health specialists may someday know who benefits most from different types of treatment and be able to intervene more effectively.
NIMH grantees are also trying to determine if there are different varieties of attention deficit. With further study, researchers may find that ADHD actually covers a number of different disorders, each with its own cluster of symptoms and treatment requirements. For example, scientists are exploring whether there are any critical differences between children with ADHD who also have anxiety, depression, or conduct disorders and those who do not. Other researchers are studying slight physical differences that might distinguish one type of ADHD from another. If clusters of differences can be found, scientists can begin to distinguish the treatment each type needs.
Other NIMH-sponsored research is examining the long-term outcome of ADHD. How do children with ADHD turn out, compared to brothers and sisters without the disorder? As adults, how do they handle their own children? Still other studies seek to better understand ADHD in adults. Such studies give insights into what types of treatment or services make a difference in helping an ADHD child grow into a caring parent and a well-functioning adult.
Animal studies are also adding to our knowledge of ADHD in humans. Animal subjects make it possible to study some of the possible causes of ADHD in ways that can’t be studied in people. In addition, animal research allows the safety and effectiveness of experimental new drugs to be tested long before they can be given to humans. One NIH-sponsored team of scientists is studying dogs to learn how new stimulant drugs that are similar to Ritalin act on the brain.
Piece by piece, through studies of humans and animals, scientists are beginning to understand the biological nature of attention disorders. New research is allowing us to better understand the inner workings of the brain as we continue to develop new medications and assess new forms of treatment.