Putting science behind practice
"Traditional treatment is analogous to changing the diet of a diabetic child. It helps, but the underlying pancreatic disease has not been addressed. This program may actually be the first intervention
to target the underlying problem
Behind every clinical question is a comparison: Is treating something one way better than treating it a different way – or not treating it at all? Without rigorous comparative analysis, national standards and guidelines would be impossible.
Julie Schweitzer, associate professor of clinical psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, is overseeing important comparative studies that may substantially alter how attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is treated by medical professionals.
When a student of Schweitzer’s told her about a commercially available program for ADHD, sold as Cogmed, she was at first skeptical of the remarkable claims the company’s website made. "But how could I dismiss the claims without first doing the science to find out whether they were true or not?" she poses.
Cogmed guides users through a variety of short focusing exercises. The producers of the product claim that it actually changes the brain so that it performs better in different situations.
When Schweitzer put the program through rigorous testing versus "placebo" computer games, she was surprised that many of the company’s claims were true. Not only did working memory improve in children using the program, but their time spent being distracted from tasks decreased dramatically. PET scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging showed improvement in areas associated with being organized and staying on task.
Schweitzer and Human Development Ph.D. graduate student Kyle Rutledge are now comparing the effectiveness of the program versus parent education, the established therapy for ADHD. Parent education involves helping parents support their children in developing habits to stay on task better to incrementally accomplish their goals. Although it is effective in improving children’s scholastic achievement, according to Schweitzer, it doesn’t address their underlying attention deficit problem, which Cogmed appears to do.
"Traditional treatment is analogous to changing the diet of a diabetic child. It helps, but the underlying pancreatic disease has not been addressed," says Schweitzer. "This program may actually be the first intervention to target the underlying problem in ADHD."