Long Term ADHD Drug Benefits Questioned

Posted on March 27, 2009  Comments (0)

Debate Over Drugs For ADHD Reignites by Shankar Vedantam

New data from a large federal study have reignited a debate over the effectiveness of long-term drug treatment of children with hyperactivity or attention-deficit disorder, and have drawn accusations that some members of the research team have sought to play down evidence that medications do little good beyond 24 months. The study also indicated that long-term use of the drugs can stunt children’s growth.

One principal scientist in the study, psychologist William Pelham, said that the most obvious interpretation of the data is that the medications are useful in the short term but ineffective over longer periods but added that his colleagues had repeatedly sought to explain away evidence that challenged the long-term usefulness of medication. When their explanations failed to hold up, they reached for new ones, Pelham said.

Peter Jensen, one of Pelham’s fellow researchers, responded that Pelham was biased against the use of drugs and was substituting his personal opinion for science.

Jensen said Pelham was the only member of the team of researchers who took away “the silly message” that the study raised questions about the long-term utility of drugs, but interviews and e-mails show that Pelham was not alone.

In a telephone interview, Jensen denied that the researchers had misled the public, pointing out that some children getting the drugs did do better over the long term. Looking at overall results was not as useful as studying how particular groups of children fared, he said.

Jensen and another co-author, L. Eugene Arnold at Ohio State University, who are both psychiatrists, emphasized the importance of individualizing treatment — and warned parents against abruptly terminating drug therapy.

The subgroup analysis found that children in homes that were socially and economically stable did the same in the long term with or without medication. Children from troubled or deprived backgrounds slid backward as soon as the intensive therapy stopped and they went back to their communities. About one-third — those with the least impairment to begin with — continued to improve over the long term.

Jensen and co-author Benedetto Vitiello at the NIMH said drugs may not have shown an overall long-term benefit because the quality of routine care that children received may have been inferior to the care they got during the initial part of the study. Jensen said the take-home message is that community care needs improvement.

I have said I believe we too frequently reach for drug solutions. In the right situations drugs are wonderful tools. But they also have consequences and risks and it seems to me those negatives are given far too little weight.

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