Everyone loves to hear about someone overcoming obstacles to become a star. This NYT article about Michael Phelps, ADHD-child-turned-Olympian-superstar, caught my eye.
I found most intriguing the bit where Phelps’ mother says that, although he was incapable of sitting still for five minutes in school, he was able to sit patiently at poolside for hours awaiting his chance to swim.
I've heard many stories like this about ADD/ADHD/CD/ODD children: unmanageable under the stringent circumstances of formal schooling (sit still, don't move, don't talk, pay attention), they blossom under circumstances that channel and challenge their natural energy. (In fact, one research team has come up with interesting results suggesting that children with ADHD benefit from exposure to natural settings (Kuo and Taylor).)
All this leads me to suspect that this entity which we treat as a disease may actually be a personality trait that lies on the normal spectrum, but that happens to be incompatible with the demands of our technological society.
Human beings evolved to forage, track game, and avoid becoming prey. Those are the tasks for which we were optimally designed. Sitting quietly in school for six to ten hours a day is not in that job description. Humans are amazingly flexible, so most of us can handle it to a greater or lesser degree; but it's not surprising that those out on the high-energy end of the personality spectrum are having some trouble.
So does that mean that we should not diagnose or treat ADHD? If in another place and time it would have been simply another character trait, does that mean we shouldn't medicate it? Well, I wouldn’t say that either. Some of the behaviors described for these kids are absolutely beyond the pale of what parents and teachers could be expected to manage by themselves.
Whether these behaviors would be different in a different environment – out on a farm, say, or in a forest – is perhaps irrelevant. We can’t move the kids out of the society they’re in. This is it, for better or worse. If the kid can't function, he can't function. So what are we going to do about it?
As always, I’m all for behavioral interventions ahead of pharmacological ones. If the behavior of kids on the milder end of the spectrum can be improved by fixing their diets or letting them tear around outside for a few hours, then that’s an easy decision to make.
But what about kids on the extreme end of the spectrum? The kids who scream, bite, kick, punch, and cannot be coaxed, bribed, threatened, or punished into any semblance of normal behavior? This is the difficult question faced by parents of ADD/ADHD children: to medicate or not to medicate?
I’m generally extremely wary of giving psychoactive medication to children. The brain is not completely developed until the mid-twenties, and the brains of young children adapt gleefully and abundantly to changing stimuli. If those stimuli include, say, an extended period of dopamine blockade, the brain will adapt by upregulating its sensitivity to dopamine, attempting to restore a more typical balance of dopamine activity. How long do these effects last? Nobody knows.
Here’s a study that shows rats that get Ritalin as adolescents are more sensitive to amphetamines as adults. (Valvassori et al.). Here's another one that demonstrates the same thing, and also suggests some baseline behavioral changes (Carlezon et al.). Similar results in this third study (Brandon et al.).
This was later studied in humans and it doesn't look like kids treated with Ritalin are any more likely to become speed addicts as adults than anyone else (less actually), but I'm not aware of any follow-up on, e.g., long-term susceptibility to depression or other mental health concerns.
Meanwhile, children are starting to receive medications with much less pediatric data behind them than Ritalin. For example, the FDA approved the antipsychotic Risperdal for use in children based on three clinical trials that lasted 3, 6, and 8 weeks respectively. (Risperdal is not approved for use in ADHD specifically but is sometimes prescribed off-label for that indication.)
Huh? Where’s the study that looks at the kids five, ten, or twenty years later? That’s the one I want to see. And barring that (given the difficulties of conducting such extended trials), I’d love to see some more animal studies.
So about those animal studies. I didn't find many, and what I did find wasn't encouraging. Here’s a study that shows alterations of development, outgrowth, and axonal migration in developing worms receiving antipsychotics (Donohoe et al.).
Unfortunately, the need for behavior control is urgent, and the information just isn’t out there. I think the vast majority of parents are pretty cautious, as they should be, about medicating their kids, and will do so only as a last resort. I also think that’s the right approach; and in the final analysis, if you need it, you need it. Sometimes you have to trade the threat of an unknown outcome in the future for a drop of sanity in the here and now.
But I wouldn’t be soothed into thinking that just because we don’t know about long-term ill effects of childhood medication doesn’t mean they don’t exist. You can only know something is there if you look for it, and that’s something the biomedical research community doesn’t yet appear to have done.