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Developing novel, integrated treatments for ADHD

Julie Schweitzer © UC Regents
Julie Schweitzer

Posted August 11, 2010

Julie Schweitzer, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and researcher in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at the MIND Institute, is leading an innovative examination of therapies for individuals with ADHD. ADHD is the most common psychiatric disorder in childhood, affecting 3 to 5 percent of school-aged children in the United States. It is also a chronic illness that requires long-term management strategies.

More than their peers, children with ADHD tend to act impulsively and daydream.

Schweitzer’s team is teasing out what makes children with ADHD different. Their many research tools include:

  • measurements of pupil size, an indicator of norepinephrine levels;
  • functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, measuring changes in brain activity during cognitive tasks related to deficits associated with ADHD;
  • event-related potential, a variation on EEG, focusing on electrical activity in the brain in response to a task (diagram above); and
  • diagnostic behavioral measurements

Distracted child © iStockphoto
Children’s inability to pay attention when they started school had the strongest negative effect on academic performance at the end of high school, regardless of their IQ.

"We’re measuring differences in brain functioning in relation to cognitive and emotional demands in subtypes of ADHD," Schweitzer said. "Ultimately, we’re searching for targets for cognitive, educational and pharmacological therapies."

Last summer, Schweitzer co-authored a paper published in the journal Pediatrics showing a link between attention problems, seen as early as kindergarten, and high school reading and mathematics achievement. Children’s inability to pay attention when they started school had the strongest negative effect on academic performance at the end of high school, regardless of their IQ. These results showed that early attention problems predict poor performance later in reading and mathematics.

UC Davis MIND Institute

UC Davis MIND Institute © UC RegentsThe MIND Institute is a collaborative international research center, committed to the awareness, understanding, prevention, care and cure of neurodevelopmental disorders.

What began as six families, joined together by the challenges of autism, and motivated by an urgent desire to find answers, is now an internationally renowned research center for understanding autism, fragile X syndrome, Tourette, chromosome 22Q11.2 deletion  syndrome and ADHD.  What makes the UC Davis MIND Institute a world-class leader in state-of-the-art research is a partnership of acknowledged experts in neuroscience, education, psychiatry, immunology, genetics, molecular biology, psychology and developmental pediatrics. Click here to learn more.

Schweitzer’s basic research findings may shed light on what leads to these deficits in academic functioning. In a recent Child Neuropsychology study, she found that children with ADHD show more variable or inconsistent response times on memory tasks compared with typically developing peers. The study may explain why attention in a classroom may be fine one moment and poor at another, but cumulatively results in long-term negative effects on learning in the classroom.

Her team’s related study, published last year in the journal Brain Research, extended these findings with brain imaging data. Using fMRI, they found that in participants with ADHD neural activity in brain regions that should be less active when performing attention-demanding tasks remained high. And a recent research study co-authored by internal medicine Associate Professor Joshua Breslau and pediatrics Associate Professor Elizabeth Miller, students with ADHD were found that students with ADHD were most at risk of dropping out of high school.

Schweitzer and her collaborators are testing a number of potential treatments for ADHD, including computerized training and comparing telemedicine versus face-to-face parent training. They’ve partnered with the Sacramento Unified School District in a project testing the effectiveness of parent workshops in increasing implementation of ADHD treatment recommendations.

The best outcome of this novel work, Schweitzer said, would be “identifying the underlying biological deficits associated with ADHD, so that we can develop targeted treatments and thereby improve the lives of people with ADHD and their families.”