This article is provided by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the Federal agency that supports research nationwide on the brain, mental illnesses, and mental health. Scientists supported by NIMH are dedicated to understanding the workings and interrelationships of the various regions of the brain, and to developing preventive measures and new treatments to overcome brain disorders that handicap people in school, work, and play.
The article offers up-to-date information on attention deficit disorders and the role of NIMH-sponsored research in discovering underlying causes and effective treatments. It describes treatment options, strategies for coping, and sources of information and support. You'll find out what it's like to have ADHD from the stories of Mark, Lisa, and Henry. You'll see their early frustrations, their steps toward getting help, and their hopes for the future.
The individuals referred to in this brochure are not real, but their stories are representative of people who show symptoms of ADHD.
What Are the Symptoms of ADHD?
The three people you've just met, Mark, Lisa, and Henry, all have a form of ADHD--Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. ADHD is not like a broken arm, or strep throat. Unlike these two disorders, ADHD does not have clear physical signs that can be seen in an x-ray or a lab test. ADHD can only be identified by looking for certain characteristic behaviors, and as with Mark, Lisa, and Henry, these behaviors vary from person to person. Scientists have not yet identified a single cause behind all the different patterns of behavior--and they may never find just one. Rather, someday scientists may find that ADHD is actually an umbrella term for several slightly different disorders.
At present, ADHD is a diagnosis applied to children and adults who consistently display certain characteristic behaviors over a period of time. The most common behaviors fall into three categories: inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
Inattention. People who are inattentive have a hard time keeping their mind on any one thing and may get bored with a task after only a few minutes. They may give effortless, automatic attention to activities and things they enjoy. But focusing deliberate, conscious attention to organizing and completing a task or learning something new is difficult.
For example, Lisa found it agonizing to do homework. Often, she forgot to plan ahead by writing down the assignment or bringing home the right books. And when trying to work, every few minutes she found her mind drifting to something else. As a result, she rarely finished and her work was full of errors.
Hyperactivity. People who are hyperactive always seem to be in motion. They can't sit still. Like Mark, they may dash around or talk incessantly. Sitting still through a lesson can be an impossible task. Hyperactive children squirm in their seat or roam around the room. Or they might wiggle their feet, touch everything, or noisily tap their pencil. Hyperactive teens and adults may feel intensely restless. They may be fidgety or, like Henry, they may try to do several things at once, bouncing around from one activity to the next.
Impulsivity. People who are overly impulsive seem unable to curb their immediate reactions or think before they act. As a result, like Lisa, they may blurt out inappropriate comments. Or like Mark, they may run into the street without looking. Their impulsivity may make it hard for them to wait for things they want or to take their turn in games. They may grab a toy from another child or hit when they're upset.
Not everyone who is overly hyperactive, inattentive, or impulsive has an attention disorder. Since most people sometimes blurt out things they didn't mean to say, bounce from one task to another, or become disorganized and forgetful, how can specialists tell if the problem is ADHD?
To assess whether a person has ADHD, specialists consider several critical questions: Are these behaviors excessive, long-term, and pervasive? That is, do they occur more often than in other people the same age? Are they a continuous problem, not just a response to a temporary situation? Do the behaviors occur in several settings or only in one specific place like the playground or the office? The person's pattern of behavior is compared against a set of criteria and characteristics of the disorder. These criteria appear in a diagnostic reference book called the DSM (short for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
According to the diagnostic manual, there are three patterns of behavior that indicate ADHD. People with ADHD may show several signs of being consistently inattentive. They may have a pattern of being hyperactive and impulsive. Or they may show all three types of behavior.
According to the DSM, signs of inattention include:
becoming easily distracted by irrelevant sights and sounds
failing to pay attention to details and making careless mistakes
rarely following instructions carefully and completely
losing or forgetting things like toys, or pencils, books, and tools needed for a task
Some signs of hyperactivity and impulsivity are:
feeling restless, often fidgeting with hands or feet, or
running, climbing, or leaving a seat, in situations where sitting or quiet behavior is expected
blurting out answers before hearing the whole question
having difficulty waiting in line or for a turn
Because everyone shows some of these behaviors at times, the DSM contains very specific guidelines for determining when they indicate ADHD. The behaviors must appear early in life, before age 7, and continue for at least 6 months. In children, they must be more frequent or severe than in others the same age. Above all, the behaviors must create a real handicap in at least two areas of a person's life, such as school, home, work, or social settings. So someone whose work or friendships are not impaired by these behaviors would not be diagnosed with ADHD. Nor would a child who seems overly active at school but functions well elsewhere.
Can Any Other Conditions Produce These Symptoms?
The fact is, many things can produce these behaviors. Anything from chronic fear to mild seizures can make a child seem overactive, quarrelsome, impulsive, or inattentive. For example, a formerly cooperative child who becomes overactive and easily distracted after a parent's death is dealing with an emotional problem, not ADHD. A chronic middle ear infection can also make a child seem distracted and uncooperative. So can living with family members who are physically abusive or addicted to drugs or alcohol. Can you imagine a child trying to focus on a math lesson when his or her safety and well-being are in danger each day? Such children are showing the effects of other problems, not ADHD.
In other children, ADHD-like behaviors may be their response to a defeating classroom situation. Perhaps the child has a learning disability and is not developmentally ready to learn to read and write at the time these are taught. Or maybe the work is too hard or too easy, leaving the child frustrated or bored.
Tyrone and Mimi are two examples of how classroom conditions can elicit behaviors that look like ADHD. For months, Tyrone shouted answers out in class, then became disruptive when the teacher ignored him. He certainly seemed hyperactive and impulsive. Finally, after observing Tyrone in other situations, his teacher realized he just wanted approval for knowing the right answer. She began to seek opportunities to call on him and praise him. Gradually, Tyrone became calmer and more cooperative.
Mimi, a fourth grader, made loud noises during reading group that constantly disrupted the class. One day the teacher realized that the book was too hard for Mimi. Mimi's disruptions stopped when she was placed in a reading group where the books were easier and she could successfully participate in the lesson.
Like Tyrone and Mimi, some children's attention and class participation improve when the class structure and lessons are adjusted a bit to meet their emotional needs, instructional level, or learning style. Although such children need a little help to get on track at school, they probably don't have ADHD.
It's also important to realize that during certain stages of development, the majority of children that age tend to be inattentive, hyperactive, or impulsive--but do not have ADHD. Preschoolers have lots of energy and run everywhere they go, but this doesn't mean they are hyperactive. And many teenagers go through a phase when they are messy, disorganized, and reject authority. It doesn't mean they will have a lifelong problem controlling their impulses.
ADHD is a serious diagnosis that may require long-term treatment with counseling and medication. So it's important that a doctor first look for and treat any other causes for these behaviors.
What Can Look Like ADHD?
Underachievement at school due to a learning disability
Attention lapses caused by petit mal seizures
A middle ear infection that causes an intermittent hearing problem
Disruptive or unresponsive behavior due to anxiety or depression
Can Other Disorders Accompany ADHD?
One of the difficulties in diagnosing ADHD is that it is often accompanied by other problems. For example, many children with ADHD also have a specific learning disability (LD), which means they have trouble mastering language or certain academic skills, typically reading and math. ADHD is not in itself a specific learning disability. But because it can interfere with concentration and attention, ADHD can make it doubly hard for a child with LD to do well in school.
A very small proportion of people with ADHD have a rare disorder called Tourette's syndrome. People with Tourette's have tics and other movements like eye blinks or facial twitches that they cannot control. Others may grimace, shrug, sniff, or bark out words. Fortunately, these behaviors can be controlled with medication. Researchers at NIMH and elsewhere are involved in evaluating the safety and effectiveness of treatment for people who have both Tourette's syndrome and ADHD.
More serious, nearly half of all children with ADHD--mostly boys--tend to have another condition, called oppositional defiant disorder. Like Mark, who punched playmates for jostling him, these children may overreact or lash out when they feel bad about themselves. They may be stubborn, have outbursts of temper, or act belligerent or defiant. Sometimes this progresses to more serious conduct disorders. Children with this combination of problems are at risk of getting in trouble at school, and even with the police. They may take unsafe risks and break laws--they may steal, set fires, destroy property, and drive recklessly. It's important that children with these conditions receive help before the behaviors lead to more serious problems.
At some point, many children with ADHD--mostly younger children and boys--experience other emotional disorders. About one-fourth feel anxious. They feel tremendous worry, tension, or uneasiness, even when there's nothing to fear. Because the feelings are scarier, stronger, and more frequent than normal fears, they can affect the child's thinking and behavior. Others experience depression. Depression goes beyond ordinary sadness--people may feel so "down" that they feel hopeless and unable to deal with everyday tasks. Depression can disrupt sleep, appetite, and the ability to think.
Because emotional disorders and attention disorders so often go hand in hand, every child who has ADHD should be checked for accompanying anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression can be treated, and helping children handle such strong, painful feelings will help them cope with and overcome the effects of ADHD.
(Graphic Omitted: Diagram showing the overlapping of other disorders with ADHD.)
Of course, not all children with ADHD have an additional disorder. Nor do all people with learning disabilities, Tourette's syndrome, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, anxiety, or depression have ADHD. But when they do occur together, the combination of problems can seriously complicate a person's life. For this reason, it's important to watch for other disorders in children who have ADHD.
What Causes ADHD?
Understandably, one of the first questions parents ask when they learn their child has an attention disorder is "Why? What went wrong?"
Health professionals stress that since no one knows what causes ADHD, it doesn't help parents to look backward to search for possible reasons. There are too many possibilities to pin down the cause with certainty. It is far more important for the family to move forward in finding ways to get the right help.
Scientists, however, do need to study causes in an effort to identify better ways to treat, and perhaps some day, prevent ADHD. They are finding more and more evidence that ADHD does not stem from home environment, but from biological causes. When you think about it, there is no clear relationship between home life and ADHD. Not all children from unstable or dysfunctional homes have ADHD. And not all children with ADHD come from dysfunctional families. Knowing this can remove a huge burden of guilt from parents who might blame themselves for their child's behavior.
Over the last decades, scientists have come up with possible theories about what causes ADHD. Some of these theories have led to dead ends, some to exciting new avenues of investigation.
One disappointing theory was that all attention disorders and learning disabilities were caused by minor head injuries or undetectable damage to the brain, perhaps from early infection or complications at birth. Based on this theory, for many years both disorders were called "minimal brain damage" or "minimal brain dysfunction." Although certain types of head injury can explain some cases of attention disorder, the theory was rejected because it could explain only a very small number of cases. Not everyone with ADHD or LD has a history of head trauma or birth complications.
Another theory was that refined sugar and food additives make children hyperactive and inattentive. As a result, parents were encouraged to stop serving children foods containing artificial flavorings, preservatives, and sugars. However, this theory, too, came under question. In 1982, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Federal agency responsible for biomedical research, held a major scientific conference to discuss the issue. After studying the data, the scientists concluded that the restricted diet only seemed to help about 5 percent of children with ADHD, mostly either young children or children with food allergies.
ADHD Is Not Usually Caused by:
too much TV
poor home life
In recent years, as new tools and techniques for studying the brain have been developed, scientists have been able to test more theories about what causes ADHD.
Using one such technique, NIMH scientists demonstrated a link between a person's ability to pay continued attention and the level of activity in the brain. Adult subjects were asked to learn a list of words. As they did, scientists used a PET (positron emission tomography) scanner to observe the brain at work. The researchers measured the level of glucose used by the areas of the brain that inhibit impulses and control attention. Glucose is the brain's main source of energy, so measuring how much is used is a good indicator of the brain's activity level. The investigators found important differences between people who have ADHD and those who don't. In people with ADHD, the brain areas that control attention used less glucose, indicating that they were less active. It appears from this research that a lower level of activity in some parts of the brain may cause inattention.
The next step will be to research WHY there is less activity in these areas of the brain. Scientists at NIMH hope to compare the use of glucose and the activity level in mild and severe cases of ADHD. They will also try to discover why some medications used to treat ADHD work better than others, and if the more effective medications increase activity in certain parts of the brain.
Researchers are also searching for other differences between those who have and do not have ADHD. Research on how the brain normally develops in the fetus offers some clues about what may disrupt the process. Throughout pregnancy and continuing into the first year of life, the brain is constantly developing. It begins its growth from a few all-purpose cells and evolves into a complex organ made of billions of specialized, interconnected nerve cells. By studying brain development in animals and humans, scientists are gaining a better understanding of how the brain works when the nerve cells are connected correctly and incorrectly. Scientists at NIMH and other research institutions are tracking clues to determine what might prevent nerve cells from forming the proper connections. Some of the factors they are studying include drug use during pregnancy, toxins, and genetics.
Research shows that a mother's use of cigarettes, alcohol, or other drugs during pregnancy may have damaging effects on the unborn child. These substances may be dangerous to the fetus's developing brain. It appears that alcohol and the nicotine in cigarettes may distort developing nerve cells. For example, heavy alcohol use during pregnancy has been linked to fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a condition that can lead to low birth weight, intellectual impairment, and certain physical defects. Many children born with FAS show much the same hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity as children with ADHD.
Drugs such as cocaine--including the smokable form known as crack--seem to affect the normal development of brain receptors. These brain cell parts help to transmit incoming signals from our skin, eyes, and ears, and help control our responses to the environment. Current research suggests that drug abuse may harm these receptors. Some scientists believe that such damage may lead to ADHD.
Toxins in the environment may also disrupt brain development or brain processes, which may lead to ADHD. Lead is one such possible toxin. It is found in dust, soil, and flaking paint in areas where leaded gasoline and paint were once used. It is also present in some water pipes. Some animal studies suggest that children exposed to lead may develop symptoms associated with ADHD, but only a few cases have actually been found.
Other research shows that attention disorders tend to run in families, so there are likely to be genetic influences. Children who have ADHD usually have at least one close relative who also has ADHD. And at least one-third of all fathers who had ADHD in their youth bear children who have ADHD. Even more convincing: the majority of identical twins share the trait. At the National Institutes of Health, researchers are also on the trail of a gene that may be involved in transmitting ADHD in a small number of families with a genetic thyroid disorder.
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