According to the Center for Disease Control, the number of children aged 4-17 diagnosed with ADHD in the past 10 years has risen dramatically, from 7.8 percent in 2003 to 11 percent by 2011. It is a number that has researchers scrambling to find ways to treat these children in ways that may help them avoid medication and its potential side effects.
“The CDC now shows the prevalence at 11 percent. That really is a lot of people,” says Naomi Steiner, M.D., developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center. “There has been a gap in non-pharmaceutical approaches.”
Steiner and a team of researchers at Tufts recently conducted a study on the use of neurofeedback or cognitive computer training (CT) with elementary school children diagnosed with ADHD. The study used 104 students, about half of whom were on medication. The group was divided into three groups and provided neurofeedback training, CT or no therapy for a period of five months.
At the end of the five-month period, the neurofeedback group had the best results, showing longer attention spans as well as reduced hyperactive and impulsive behaviors for all participants, medicated or not. The CT group showed longer attention spans while the group with no therapy showed no improvement.
The children were tested again six months after completing the training and the neurofeedback group showed consistent benefits, with a slight reduction for the CT group. Parent response rates for the neurofeedback group were 90 percent at the follow-up as well.
In addition, the neurofeedback group maintained the same dosage in medication over that time period, while the other groups did show statistically and clinically significant increases, which would be consistent with physical growth in that age group requiring higher dosage amounts.
“This is a paradigm shift because, by using neurofeedback or CT with computers, we do not know of any side effects,” says Steiner. “That will be a very big shift for the world of ADHD.”
While the research is promising, Steiner is quick to point out that it is still somewhat preliminary and they are not expecting it to replace medication at this point. More work will need to be done to ascertain how much training would be prescribed for various ages, how long they can expect the results to be sustained and to find the best ways to administer the sessions.
Another important piece of the study, Steiner explains, is that it was conducted inside the school system, perhaps the only one done in that setting. The ultimate goal, she adds, would be to see the treatment made available in schools throughout the country.
“It would be important to do in the schools to ensure access to all children,” she says.
The big question is whether neurofeedback can actually, permanently “rewire” the brain or if people would need updates over the years. The Tufts team hopes to revisit the same students they have studied to do follow-up work in order to begin to get answers to these questions.
“When I wrote this grant, I was not expecting to get sustained results like this,” Steiner says. “For me, it would be very interesting to go back and look at the same group. Right now we are a little on the brink of this information coming out.”
By Catherine Robertson Souter