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The National Institute of Mental Health archives materials that are over 4 years old and no longer being updated. The content on this page is provided for historical reference purposes only and may not reflect current knowledge or information.

ADHD: Signs, Symptoms, Research

NIMH researchers talk about the symptoms of ADHD as well as the latest research.


Announcer: ADHD- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder- is one of the most common mental disorders that develop in children. According to Dr. Ben Vitiello of the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly five percent of all school age children may have the condition…..

Dr. Ben Vitiello: The main symptoms of attention deficit disorder are hyperactivity which means moderate activity that is not really aimed at specific tasks and it is developmentally inappropriate… level of impulsiveness that are also considered to be abnormal for the developmental stage of the child and sometimes also combined with inattention… inability to concentrate on tasks… long enough to complete the task that a child at a certain age should be able to do.

Announcer: But Dr. Vitiello points out the presence of symptoms does not necessary mean a child has ADHD. Clinical evaluation needs to be made of a child showing behavioral issues that create problems at school, at home or in social settings. Stimulant medications such as Adderall or Ritalin have been proven to been highly effective in controlling ADHD symptoms. But often times, the question is asked- how can stimulants be used to treat hyperactive behavior?

Dr. Ben Vitiello: They are correctly identified as stimulants because they stimulate the brain to pay attention… they stimulant the part of the brain that pertains to executive function in particular… so, the ability to efficiently complete tasks. As the child performs more efficiently and is more focused it may look that he’s calm. Indeed, he’s not just calm he’s just engaged in a task in a much more efficient and focused way.

Announcer: In addition to advances in behavioral study of ADHD remarkable strides in technology have given investigators an even clearer picture of the brain at work…

Dr. Philip Shaw: There have been really huge advances in looking at the brains in kids with ADHD- the biggest single change has been the advent… the arrival of magnetic resonance imaging .. because that’s safe- it doesn’t involve any radiation so we can scan children as they grow up and we can scan them repeatedly. Because the best way to capture a developmental problem like ADHD is to look at the same child over time as they are growing up.

Announcer: Of particular interest in recent research is charting the growth of the brain’s cortex in children with ADHD…

Dr. Philip Shaw: And one thing that we find… the main finding.. is that kids with ADHD show basically the same overall pattern of brain development or cortical development… it’s just that everything in kids with ADHD tends to be a bit slower. It’s all a bit delayed. So, the parts of the brain where this delay in maturation is most pronounced is at the front- they are the parts of the brain that are very important that control of action and attention. And that gives us all sorts of new targets to look at for potential treatments in ADHD- things that we didn’t think of looking at before. So, for example, if you find that brain development in the case of ADHD is a bit delayed that might suggest that we should start looking at the cell… the cellular mechanism- the basics of why that might be the case. And that also then leads to thinking about all sorts of genes which might regulate the timing of brain development and how they might be a bit different in kids with ADHD. All this sort of work… working from the basic brain science… and the basic genetics of ADHD. I think gives us very good leads into future potential, novel treatments for ADHD.

Announcer: To find out more about ADHD… and information about locating mental health services in your area… go to .