Is ADHD all in your head?

A study published in the June 14 edition of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics has sparked controversy regarding ADHD medication and the brain’s power to regulate itself.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by Dr. Adrian Sandler, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and medical director of the Olson Huff Center for Child Development at Mission Children’s Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.  The research was performed over the course of eight years using 99 patients from Western North Carolina.

Sandler found that children with ADHD can do just as well on half their medication when the medication is combined with a placebo. They performed as well even when parents and children had full knowledge they were taking a placebo.

[Placebo --  A substance containing no medication and prescribed or given to reinforce a patient's expectation to get well. The placebo in this research was akin to a harmless inert pill].

Previous studies have shown that common stimulant medication causes side-effects like tics, weight loss, stunted growth, and even heart complications in some instances. This often causes trepidation in parents afraid of the possible side-effects on their children.

Sandler compared fully medicated children, children on reduced medication, and children on reduced medication with a known placebo. The results were quite intriguing.  Both the fully medicated and reduced medication groups had increased side-effects while the reduced medication with placebo demonstrated decreased side-effects. Furthermore, the reduced medication group reported decreased control of their ADHD symptoms. However, the control of ADHD symptoms was no different in the reduced medication with placebo group than in the full dose group, i.e. the reduced medication with placebo performed as well as the fully medicated group with less side-effects as well.

“I’ve been getting a lot of calls and e-mails,” said Sandler,, who conducted the research with James Bodfish, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and pediatrics at UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine, and study coordinator Corrine Glesne.

“Medications work,” Bodfish said in a statement. “The question is whether we always need to use them at the highest dose. Many parents are concerned about placing their child on medication. Some choose not to treat their child because of concerns about side effects.”

While the research doesn’t address it, the obvious question is, Why? Parents and children in this study knew they were taking a placebo. Why then did they perform as well as their peers without the side-effects — at essentially half the dose as their peers? While the placebo effect has been studied widely, the exact mechanisms are unknown. We do know that the mechanism is governed by the brain. This clearly tells us that having ADHD or not, our brain is still a powerful weapon in our arsenal.

We also cannot exclude the influence of the parents during this research. Did they expect their child to do better? The authors suggest that this was so. This dynamic cannot be overlooked in your family either.

The bottom line is that we likely have far more control over our behaviors and cognitive processes than we are given credit for. Modern medicine, as this research suggests, is just beginning to understand the brain’s role in shaping our lives. We’ve known this for years at Play Attention. Cognitive training. Memory training. Motor skills. Attention training. Behavioral shaping. It’s time to take control over our lives. We’ve all got the power to do it. It lies right behind our eyes.

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