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Pharmacotherapy of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

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  • 1Pediatric Psychopharmacology Unit, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, USA.


Despite a large body of literature documenting the effectiveness of medication in the treatment of ADHD, there has been public and professional concern regarding the possible inappropriate diagnosis and prescription of ADHD medications. Recently the Council of Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association addressed these concerns in a scholarly review. Several factors were identified that contributed to existing controversies: (1) Like most psychiatric disorders, diagnostic criteria for ADHD are based on history and behavioral assessment. There are no pathognomonic laboratory or radiologic tests to confirm the diagnosis. (2) Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a chronic disorder and requires extended treatment. (3) Treatment includes potentially abusable medications. After a review of the voluminous literature, this distinguished panel concluded that ADHD is one of the best researched disorders in medicine; in fact, the overall data on its validity are far more compelling than for many other medical conditions. They also concluded that there was little evidence of widespread overdiagnosis or misdiagnosis of ADHD or of widespread overprescription of stimulants by physicians. Consistent with the current emphasis on cognitive dysregulation in ADHD, treatment concerns have expanded from a primarily behavioral focus to include enhancement of executive functions in scholastic as well as other settings. Although stimulants have been the most studied compounds, there is a considerable body of literature indicating an important role for other psychopharmacologic agents. Noradrenergic and dopaminergic modulation appears to be necessary for effective anti-ADHD treatment. In addition, promising evidence of newer cholinergic agents may provide other useful alternatives. As with all psychiatric disorders, comorbid conditions are prominent and may lead to high morbidity and disability if not addressed. As with other areas of medicine, it is sometimes necessary to use multiple agents to treat comorbidity or to achieve an effective response.

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