Preschoolers with ADHD not helped by medication

child with a doctor

BALTIMORE — Nine out of 10 young children with moderate to severe attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) continue to experience serious, often severe symptoms and impairment long after their original diagnoses and, in many cases, despite treatment.

The results came from a federally funded multi-center study led by investigators at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. 

The study is the largest long-term analysis to date of preschoolers with ADHD, the investigators say, and sheds much-needed light on the natural course of a condition that is being diagnosed at an increasingly earlier age. 

Common diagnosis

“ADHD is becoming a more common diagnosis in early childhood, so understanding how the disorder progresses in this age group is critical,” said lead investigator Mark Riddle, M.D., a pediatric psychiatrist at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. “We found that ADHD in preschoolers is a chronic and rather persistent condition, one that requires better long-term behavioral and pharmacological treatments than we currently have.” 

Medication didn’t help

The study shows that nearly 90 percent of the 186 youngsters followed continued to struggle with ADHD symptoms six years after diagnosis. 

Children taking ADHD medication had just as severe symptoms as those who were medication-free, the study found. 

Children with ADHD, ages 3 to 5, were enrolled in the study, treated for several months, after which they were referred to community pediatricians for ongoing care. Over the next six years, the researchers used detailed reports from parents and teachers to track the children’s behavior, school performance and the frequency and severity of three of ADHD’s hallmark symptoms: inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. 

The children also had full diagnostic workups by the study’s clinicians at the beginning, halfway through and at the end of the research. Symptom severity scores did not differ significantly between the more than two-thirds of children on medication and those off medication, the study showed. 

Specifically, 62 percent of children taking anti-ADHD drugs had clinically significant hyperactivity and impulsivity, compared with 58 percent of those not taking medicines. And 65 percent of children on medication had clinically significant inattention, compared with 62 percent of their medication-free counterparts. 

Note of caution. The investigators caution that it remains unclear whether the lack of medication effectiveness was due to suboptimal drug choice or dosage, poor adherence, medication ineffectiveness per se or some other reason. 

“Our study was not designed to answer these questions, but whatever the reason may be, it is worrisome that children with ADHD, even when treated with medication, continue to experience symptoms, and what we need to find out is why that is and how we can do better,” Riddle said. 

Children who had oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder in addition to ADHD were 30 percent more likely to experience persistent ADHD symptoms six years after diagnosis, compared with children whose sole diagnosis was ADHD. 

What is ADHD?

ADHD is considered a neurobehavioral condition and is marked by inability to concentrate, restlessness, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior. It can have profound and long-lasting effects on a child’s intellectual and emotional development, Riddle said. It can impair learning, academic performance, peer and family relationships and even physical safety. 

Past research has found that children with ADHD are at higher risk for injuries and hospitalizations. More than 7 percent of U.S. children are currently treated for ADHD, the investigators say. 

The annual economic burden of the condition is estimated to be between $36 billion and $52 billion, according to researchers. 


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  1. I totally agree with this article. My daughter has/had ADHD and we turned away from the medications because of the side effects and use Play Attention which is a neurofeedback program and I have seen excellent results. It just takes care and time which is what we finally realized is what my daughter really needed.

  2. Watch for it, one day ADHD will one day be a medical reason to keep you from owning a handgun or receiving a carry permit.

    How often is ADHD really just boredom?

  3. The med’s don’t work,hum,,could it be cause these are children who are bored and don’t wana sit still,they wana be out playing. IMO most children on these drugs do not need them.They don’t pay attention in class,they don’t mind at home and some parents and teachers think they have ADHD.They are just being kids,they are not pets that you can say stay to and they will just sit and be good little angles.These drugs to control your kids can cause alot of damage to them when they are older. Rick you are so right about the gun thing..


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