New studies aim to bridge knowledge gap in ADHD

A professional child psychologist observing little boy playing with toys at the psychotherapy session

MRC has awarded £2.4m to three studies that aim to provide a better understanding of ADHD, particularly how it progresses over time.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is neurodevelopmental condition usually diagnosed in children and can cause restlessness, difficulty concentrating and impulsive behaviour.

Sometimes, and especially in girls, the symptoms can go unnoticed until much later in life.

If left untreated, the condition can lead to difficulties for some people, increasing their risk of anxiety and depression, and impacting on their relationships, career and even life-expectancy.

Better understanding

The better understanding of ADHD gained from the Medical Research Council (MRC)-funded projects will include:

  • how the condition specifically affects women
  • its relationship with subsequent depression
  • impact of parental response in early years

Help at early stage

The studies will help to identify more people at risk and enable clinicians to offer interventions at an earlier stage to help people with ADHD manage their condition more effectively.

Reach their full potential

Dr Joanna Latimer, Head of Neurosciences and Mental Health at MRC, part of UK Research and Innovation, said:

Previous research has shown that intervening at an early stage is crucial. If ADHD is correctly diagnosed and treated, the negative impacts that it can lead to in some circumstances will be greatly reduced.

Our hope is that these projects will mean a greater number of people can be offered evidence-based interventions at the right time, so that the condition does not hold children and young adults back from reaching their potential.

Further information

Project summaries

A life course approach to understand ADHD in women

Led by Dr Jessica Agnew-Blais at Queen Mary University of London

This study will gather much needed new evidence on how ADHD presents in girls and women, and why so many women are not diagnosed with the condition until they are adults.

For many years, ADHD has been viewed as a childhood disorder mainly affecting boys, which means much of the research to date has overlooked girls and women. As more women and girls are being diagnosed with the condition, it is critical that we understand more about how the condition may differ in women.

This project will use existing data from a longitudinal cohort with yearly assessments of ADHD to assess whether the onset of puberty is associated with increasing ADHD symptoms.

It will also include new data collection to understand whether hormonal fluctuations across the menstrual cycle are associated with increased ADHD symptoms and impairment.

How and why does ADHD lead to depression in young people

Led by Dr Lucy Riglin at Cardiff University

This project will explore how ADHD and symptoms of depression can co-develop over time, and also seeks to understand how the condition can increase the risk of depression.

The project will consider which cognitive and clinical mechanisms link ADHD with depression, as well as the role of close relationships and genetics.

The project will leverage two existing UK population cohorts with rich data spanning childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, and will directly involve young people with lived experience. These young people will also play a vital role in the end process, ensuring the results of the study are engaging, meaningful and accessible for all people affected by ADHD and depression.

Understanding early causal pathways in ADHD: can early-emerging atypicalities in activity and affect cause later-emerging difficulties in attention

Led by Professor Emily Jones at Birkbeck, University of London and Professor Sam Wass at University of East London

This study will examine whether:

  • increased activity levels and signs of emotional distress in infants who go onto to develop ADHD can impact real-world interactions, notably between the child and their parent
  • differing parental responses to the infant’s activity and emotions could change the impact of ADHD on learning in later life

The project will work with infants with and without a family history of ADHD and combine data collected using cutting edge real-time methods with a new analysis of existing data from older children.

The new data will be collected at home and in a purpose built ‘ToddlerLab’, which will use motion tracking, facial recognition and wireless wearable neuroimaging to measure brain activity during natural play.

The study will use a new mechanistic intervention in which parents will be supported to scaffold their child’s attention through real-time monitoring of the child’s arousal and behaviour.

It will test whether this can alter the relationship between the response of the parent to the child’s activity and emotion and could lessen the subsequent impact on the child’s ability to concentrate as they get older.

Top image:  Credit: aquaArts studio, E+ via Getty Images

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