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Controversy about ADHD

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PET scans used to illustrate the physical basis of ADHD. This research "is not evidence for a biological basis for deficits in paying attention when a task is being presented. If I am right, it is simply a picture of the brain when a task isn’t being attended to. My suspicion is that the people with ADHD, in contrast to others who more routinely want to stay on the same page as those directing them, didn’t care a damn about learning that list of words, didn’t concentrate for more than a moment. Okay the scientists at the National Institute of Mental Heath didn’t think that was going on. Maybe they are correct, maybe I am. But it is their duty to at least mention this possibility in their discussion of their findings. And then set about devising an experiment to eliminate this possibility. They didn’t. They didn’t mention that it was a possibility. Nor has anybody else discussed this possibility in the vast literature of those who cite this kind of research as confirmation for the biological nature of ADHD. Given the arguments I have presented I find that astounding, as astounding as the lack of criticism, the lack of discussion of this issue in established journals. But most of all I object to these pictures being shown over and over and over in article after article making it seem that the difference in these brains is absolutely clear, that it has been absolutely established that the problem in ADHD is physical. A picture may say a thousand words but it can also be used with smoke and mirrors. The thousand words are needed to see more clearly." -- "ADHD And Other Sins of Our Children" [[1]] by Simon Sobo, M.D.

Anti-ADHD is a collective term for an assortment of positions which individually challenge the ontology or preconceptions of Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a psychiatric diagnosis defined in the DSM IV-TR.

The ADHD diagnosis identifies characteristics such as hyperactivity, hyperfocus, forgetfulness, mood swings, poor impulse control, and distractibility, as symptoms of a neurological pathology. But critics point out that the etiology of mental disorders is not well defined by neurology, genetics, or biology.

Further critics suspect ulterior motives of the medical industry, which both authorizes the psychiatric definitions of mental disorders and promotes the use of pharmaceutical drugs for their treatment.

Genetic basis of hyperactivity

The DSM-IV criteria identify hyperactivity as a component of a mental disorder. But evidence [citation needed]) suggests that hyperactivity is a genetically inherited trait. On the other hand, hyperactivity is not classified as a genetic disease, because it has not been associated with a defective gene. Several interpretations are possible. Hyperactivity may be the abnormal expression of one or more genes. Or, it may be the normal expression of a healthy gene. However, the psychiatric classification of hyperactivity as a disorder is not underpinned by genetic evidence.

Utility of hyperfocus

Main article: hyperfocus

While extended attention to narrow subjects is often useful for discerning details of a given subject, on the other hand, it can often be mistaken for distraction. The ADHD diagnosis provides symptoms of attention deficit, but identifies only chronic forms of distraction.

Debate about criteria

Critics of the ADHD diagnosis suggest that the diagnostic criteria are sufficiently general or vague to allow virtually any child with persistent unwanted behaviors to be classified as having ADHD of one type or another.

A growing number of critics have wondered why the number of children diagnosed with ADHD in the U.S. and UK has grown so dramatically over a short period of time. However, doctors often claim that improving methods of diagnosis and greater awareness are probably in part, if not mostly the reason for this increase.

Dr. Mary Megson, however, in her presentation to the House Government Reform Committee on Autism and Vaccines (2000) claims the increase in ADHD, as well as autism, are a result of the increasing use of vaccines that deplete vitamin A stores, combined with a G-protein defect. This is especially likely in a family where at least one parent suffers night blindness, she says.

It has often been suggested that the causes of the apparent ADHD epidemic lie in cultural patterns that variously encourage or sanction the use of drugs as a simple and expeditious cure for complex problems that may stem primarily from social and environmental triggers rather than any innate disorder. Some critics assert that many children are diagnosed with ADHD and put on drugs as a substitute for parental attention, causing massive disruption to other individuals and relationships, as well as to environments with dysfunctionally structured relationships such as are manifest in many classrooms. This criticism also includes the use of prescription drugs as a substitute for parental duties such as communication and supervision.

One critic points out that most children with ADHD have no difficulties concentrating when they are doing activities that are fun. He argues that the symptoms of ADHD describe children when they are bored and unconnected to a task. Biological evidence, though repeated ad nauseum, when scrutinized more closely is flimsy. For example Zametkin's impressive looking brain image at the beginning of the ADHD article in Wikepedia, contrasting differences in brain activity in those with the diagnosis is a picture of those with and without the diagnosis while doing an assigned task. Thus a person (with ADHD) who is not doing the assigned task will have a different looking picture of the brain's activity. If brain imaging is done while one person moves their arm and another doesn't there will also be a demonstrable difference. The "biological" evidence turns out to be no evidence at all. It is simply a picture of the brain when a person is not attempting an assigned task and the undiagnosed person is. We already knew ADHD subjects don't do what is being asked of them. Despite this obvious shortcoming, this brain image and many similar pictures of the brain are repeatedly displayed as biological proof with full knowledge of the weakness of the evidence. This lack of intellectual integrity by self proclaimed "experts" in this field is the real issue. Why is there so little criticial discussion by those who claim to be ruled by scientific principles. Why is that term "expert" bandied about so often when so little is well understood?

While a believer that ADHD is a biological condition, it is noteworthy that Xavier Castellanos M.D., head of ADHD research at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) (interviewed October 10, 2000 on Frontline ) was very explicit about biological knowledge. Frontline asked

How does ADHD work on the brain? What do we know about it?

“We don't yet know what's going on in ADHD.

Sub-clinical ADHD

Another source of skepticism towards making the diagnosis of "ADHD or not ADHD" may arise from the rising diagnosis of subclinical forms of ADHD. So called 'Shadow-syndromes' or 'sub-syndromes' stand for weaker forms of ADHD and are described in various degrees by John J. Ratey and Catherine Johnson on their book Shadow Syndromes: The Mild Forms of Major Mental Disorders That Sabotage Us.

Another explanation comes from a common misconception of the symptoms that leads to an incorrect diagnosis. For example, an employee of a school might think that a student has ADHD simply because the child cannot be controlled in the classroom. A teacher may think a student whom they cannot control has ADHD, but in reality the problem may be a lack of discipline. The same teacher might not notice a child who forgets their papers, stares (entranced) at the carpet for long periods of time, or shows many of the recognized symptoms.

However, the results achieved in clinical tests with medication and anecdotal evidence of parents, teachers, and both child and adult sufferers has been taken as proof that there is both a condition and successful treatment options for most people who meet the criteria for a diagnosis. But critics point out that neurological differences exist among individuals just as with any human trait, such as eye color or height; and that stimulants have an effect on anyone, not just those diagnosed with ADHD.

Etiology of syndrome

A further problem is that ADD and ADHD are syndromes, associations of symptoms. There is no well established cause for the condition. This means that it may actually be a blanket term covering a multitude of conditions with a variety of causes. In fact, genome scans have identified several gene alleles which are prevalent among individuals diagnosed with ADHD, but no single allele can account for all cases, and not all cases have been explained genetically.

Confusion may also arise from the fact that ADD/ADHD symptoms vary with each individual, and some mimic those of other causes. A known fact is that, as the body (and brain) matures and grows, the symptoms and adaptability of the individual also change. Many individuals diagnosed with ADD/ADHD successfully develop coping skills, while others may never do so.

There are numerous, often contradictory, claims that the brain is physically different in children with ADHD. However, even if this eventually is confirmed, by no means does it establish that the condition is "biological" Behavior changes the structure of the brain. Learning Braille causes enlargement of the part of the motor cortex that controls finger movements. After they have passed their licensing exam, London taxi drivers have been found to have a significantly enlarged hippocampus (a part of the brain that stores memories (in this case spatial-visual memories))compared to non-taxi drivers. Patients abused during their childhood, with post traumatic stress disorder, will have a flattened out hippocampus. Professionals musicians have brains that are different than non-musicians. Buddhist monks, who meditate, show measurable differences in their prefrontal lobes.[2] So diminished concerted effort when confronted with tasks thought to be drudgery (homework, paying attention to teachers, and the like) even if not caused by diferences in the brain, can have brain changing effects

Views from neurodiversity

Another view is that while there does exist a phenotype that corresponds roughly to the ADHD diagnostic criteria, this phenotype should not necessarily be described as a pathology. There are many phenotypes considered normal-variant, which have liabilities, and perhaps some advantages as well, such as homosexuality and left-handedness. In other words, ADHD may be better seen as a form of neurodiversity.

Hunter in a Farmer's Society theory

Main article: Hunter vs. farmer theory

Proposed by Thom Hartmann, this evolutionary psychology theory holds that ADHD was an adaptive behavior for the "restless" hunter before agriculture became widespread. Scientific concern around Hartmann's theory revolves around the mismatch between the behaviours symptomatic of ADHD, and those he describes as being adaptive for hunters, which better fit a diagnosis of hypomania [1]. A positive feature of the theory is the idea that thinking in terms of attentional 'differences' rather than attentional 'disorders' may direct effort toward utilizing an affected individual's strengths and uniqueness. Conversely, it could also reinforce a person's denial and refusal to seek treatment.

ADHD as a social construct

Following from the Hunter-versus-farmer theory, as with many conditions in the field of psychiatry, ADHD can be explained as a social construct (Timimi, 2002) rather than an objective 'disorder'.

In this view, in societies where passivity and order are highly valued, those on the active end of the active-passive spectrum may be seen as 'problems'. Medically defining their behaviour (by giving a label such as ADHD) serves the purpose of removing blame from those 'causing the problem'.

Evidence presented against the social constructionist view comes from a number of studies that demonstrate significant differences between ADHD and typical individuals across a wide range of social, psychological, and neurological measures as well as those assessing various areas of functioning in major life activities. More recently, studies have been able to clearly differentiate ADHD from other psychiatric disorders in its symptoms, associated features, life course, comorbidity, and adult outcome adding further evidence to its view as a true disorder.[citation needed]

Invocation of this evidence is seen by proponents of the social construct theory as a misunderstanding, nonetheless. The theory does not state that individuals across a behavioral spectrum are identical neurologically and that their life outcomes are equivalent. It is not surprising for PET scan differences to be found in people at one end of any behavioral spectrum. The theory simply says that the boundary between normal and abnormal is arbitrary and subjective, and hence ADHD does not exist as an objective entity, but only as a 'construct'.

Nor does evidence of successful treatment persuade the social constructionist; for example the American National Institute on Drug Abuse [3] reports that Ritalin is abused by non-ADHD students partly for its ability to increase their attention. Evidence showing that ADHD is associated with certain liabilities does not appear to undermine this view either; normal-variant behavior could have certain liabilities as well, and a life outcome cannot be predicted with certainty for any given diagnosed individual.

Critics of the social constructionist view contend that it presents no evidence in support of its own position. Theories must present their details and mechanisms in as precise a manner as possible so that they are testable and falsifiable, and this theory is said to provide no such details. But proponents of the view disagree that criteria for falsifiability is lacking. One way, for example, is to show that there exists an objective characteristic possessed by virtually all diagnosed individuals which does not exist in any non-diagnosed individual. Current candidates for falsifiability include PET scans, genes, neuroanatomical differences, and life outcomes. However, none of these have been shown to be precise predictors of a diagnosis or lack thereof. (Such criteria is generally fulfilled by well-understood medical diseases). Critics of this view also assert that it is not consistent with known findings. For instance, ADHD is as frequent in Japan and China as in the US (contradicted 2 paragraphs below), yet in such societies that favor child obedience and passivity one would expect higher rates of ADHD if this theory were correct. Of course, this argument falls prey to the same criticism leveled against the Social Constructivist theory in the first place: whether or not the societies of Japan and China value "passivity and obiedience" is not experimentally verified; calling them such amounts to stereotyping. Additionally, rates of medical diagnoses in China cannot be a reliable indicator of ADHD prevalence, especially for such non-life-threatening disorders as ADHD, due to the large peasant population in that country who cannot easily seek the services of a trained child psychologist. Timimi's view has been seriously criticized by Russell Barkley and numerous experts in Child and Family Psychology Review (2005).

(It should be noted that few philosophers of science today consider falsifiability to be an accurate description of the way in which modern science works. Decisions as to whether something is, or is not, 'scientific' need to be made on grounds other than falsifiability.)

Significant differences in the prevalence of ADHD across different countries have been reported, however (Dwivedi, 2005). Timimi himself cites a range of prevalence that goes from 0.5% to 26% as support for his theory.

Questions about the falsifiability of the disorder

Critics have noted that the hypothesis "ADHD exists as an objective disorder" is unscientific, and point out that people generally assume that something is scientific just because it sounds scientific [4]. In other words, ADHD does not have good Popperian criteria for falsifiability. To be falsifiable, there would need to be a possible empirical observation which could show that the hypothesis is false.

As indicated in the previous section, the opposing theory (i.e. "ADHD exists only as a social construct") is falsifiable and thus scientific. That is, it could be shown that ADHD exists as an objective entity by finding an objective characteristic which separates all diagnosable individuals from all undiagnosable ones. In contrast, to prove that ADHD does not exist as an objective entity, it would need to be shown that said objective characteristic does not exist. This task, which consists of proving a negative, is clearly not feasible.

A further issue is that even if a sharp objective difference is found between ADHD and non-ADHD groups, this does not prove that the difference constitutes a pathology. Behavior that is considered normal-variant (e.g. homosexuality, left-handedness, giftedness, being asleep, tired, etc.) likely has a neurochemical or neuroanatomical basis as well.

Concerns about the impact of labeling

Dr. Thomas Armstrong [5], a prominent critic of ADHD as an objective disorder, has said that the ADHD label is a "tragic decoy" which erodes away the potential to see the best in every child. Armstrong is a proponent of the idea that there are many types of "smarts" and has adopted the term neurodiversity (first used by autistic rights activists) as an alternative, less damaging, label [6].

Thom Hartmann became interested in ADHD when his son was diagnosed; Hartmann has said that the brain disorder label is "a pretty wretched label for any child to have to bear" [7].

Others have expressed concern that the brain disorder label can negatively impact the self-esteem of a child and effectively become a self-fulfilling prophecy mainly through self-doubt.

Concerns about medication

Many parents and professionals have raised questions about the safety of drugs used to treat ADHD, particularly methylphenidate (Ritalin). Despite belief to the contrary, no significant effects have been observed on stature or the emergence of tics [8]. Deaths attributed to methylphenidate are believed to be caused by interactions with other drugs, and are extremely rare. Matthew Smith died at 14 after long-term usage of ritalin. The medical examiner determined that Matthew Smith died from ritalin usage, but medical experts dispute this. The examiner also argued that the likelihood that diabetic children were at higher risk for cardiac problems. The usage of stimulants, which increase pulse rate, in those with heart or hypertension problems might cause serious health issues.

The Pediatric Advisory Committee of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement on June 30, 2005 identifying two possible safety concerns regarding Concerta and methylphenidate: Psychiatric adverse events and cardiovascular adverse events [9]. On February 9, 2006 the FDA's advisory panel voted in favor of having Ritalin and other stimulant drugs carry a strong "black box" warning after looking into the deaths of 25 people, including 19 children [10].

A new concern, raised by a small scale 2005 study, is that methylphenidate might cause chromosome aberrations [11], and suggested that further research is warranted considering the established link between chromosome aberrations and cancer and considering that all the children in this study showed suspicious DNA changes within a very short time. A team from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) went to Texas on May 23, 2005 to evaluate the methodology of the study. Dr. David Jacobson-Kram of the FDA said that the study had flaws in its methods but that its results could not be dismissed. Flaws cited are (1) that the study did not include a control group on placebo, and (2) that it is too small. Several research teams will attempt to replicate the study on a larger scale.

Studies on rats have suggested there could be plastic changes in personality and brain functioning after chronic use into adulthood, including changes in sensitivity to reward [12] [13]. But, again, studies in humans are lacking and so such results cannot be automatically extrapolated to humans.

ADD/ADHD a hoax?

There are some claims that ADD/ADHD is simply a hoax. Some of these charges are that there has been a conspiracy between medical and counseling professionals and the pharmaceutical companies, or that the former have been misled by the latter, which have profited greatly from the sale of medication such as Ritalin and Adderall, and have advertised their products extensively. Since medications became available, there has been an increased number of persons diagnosed. This might be explained by increased awareness or easy solution for doctors.

A major proponent of this theory, although not the only one, is the Church of Scientology, which is opposed to the field of psychiatry in general, citing ADHD as one example in which psychiatrists "harm" patients. Scientology maintains several satellite organizations like the Citizens Commission on Human Rights which have been outspoken critics of the biological basis of ADHD and medications used to treat it.[14] There may exist a conflict of interest as Scientology advocates and sells an alternative and expensive non-pharmacological treatment known as Dianetics. To complicate matters, The Church of Scientology is associated with other organizations, many of which do not openly declare themselves to be connected in any way. This makes the work of other opponents of the ADHD diagnosis difficult, because they are under false suspicion of being undeclared Scientology agents. Further complicating the situation is the fact that Scientologists follow the teachings of a science-fiction writer that has no support in any of the sciences, which makes positions they take against established professions such as psychiatry easily dismissable in the public eye.

Nevertheless, evidence for any such grand conspiracy theory is lacking. Moreover, many studies show numerous differences/deficits between those with ADHD and the general population that contradict this view that ADHD is simply a fiction or hoax. The Church also has a conflict of interest in their position given that organized psychiatry and psychology are their competitors against their own therapies and course work through their Church.


  1. Mota-Castillo, M. (2005). Review of The Edison Gene: ADHD and the Gift of the Hunter Child. Psychiatric Services, 56, 500.

2. Glenmullin, Joseph Prozac Backlash (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000), pages 192-193, 196, 198.

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