• Clinical science

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (F90)


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that presents in childhood with symptoms such as impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention. A core feature of this disorder is that symptoms must impair social, occupational, or academic performance. The diagnosis of ADHD may be established at any age, though core symptoms must have been present prior to the patient's 12th birthday. Management of ADHD is multimodal and typically consists of stimulants (e.g., methylphenidate) in combination with behavioral and school-based interventions. ADHD is associated with adverse long-term consequences including impaired educational and occupational performance and higher rates of substance use and personality disorders.


  • Sex: >
  • Age of onset: usually before age 6
  • Prevalence: estimated to be 8–11%


Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.


Multifactorial disorder

  • The general mechanism is hypothesized to be related to altered catecholamine metabolism.
  • Genetic predisposition: family history of ADHD, polymorphisms of the dopamine, serotonin, or glutamate receptor subtypes
  • Environmental factors: prematurity, in-utero exposure to alcohol; A subset of patients may have symptoms that are susceptible to dietary factors (e.g., food additives, food sensitivities, mineral deficiencies, sugar).



Clinical features

  • Symptoms of inattention and/or hyperactivity (see diagnostics below)


Diagnostic criteria (according to the DSM-5)

Pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity that is inconsistent with the developmental level of the individual and lasts for ≥ 6 months

  • Inattention is characterized by ≥ 6 of the following in children or ≥ 5 of the following in adolescents and adults (≥ 17 years of age):
    • Poor attention to details at work/school
    • Difficulty sustaining attention during tasks
    • Does not listen when spoken to directly (e.g., distraction in the absence of an obvious interruption)
    • Inability to complete tasks/instructions at work/school (e.g., easily sidetracked)
    • Struggles to organize tasks/activities (e.g., disorganized work, misses deadlines)
    • Prefers to avoid tasks that require a high amount of mental effort (e.g., homework, preparing reports)
    • Loses things necessary to complete tasks (e.g., stationery, documents)
    • Easily distracted
    • Forgetful (e.g., doesn't pay bills, doesn't do homework)
  • Hyperactivity is characterized by ≥ 6 of the following in children or ≥ 5 of the following in adolescents and adults (≥ 17 years of age):
    • Fidgets or squirms in seat
    • Often leaving their seat during inappropriate situations (e.g., meetings or in class)
    • Restless; runs about in inappropriate situations
    • Unable to carry out tasks quietly
    • Talks excessively
    • Answers questions prematurely or for others
    • Difficulty waiting their turn (e.g., has problems with lines)
    • Interrupts other people (e.g., in conversation, during activities)
B Several symptoms were present at < 12 years of age.
C Symptoms present in ≥ 2 settings (e.g., school, home, work)
D Interfere with important levels of functioning (e.g., school or work)
E Not due to a mental disorder

Establishing a diagnosis of ADHD involves identifying comorbid disorders (e.g., learning disability, psychiatric disorders) as well as ruling out disorders that may mimic ADHD (e.g., hearing or visual impairment, thyroid disorders, sleep disorders)!References:[2]


Behavioral interventions

  • Indications: :first-line therapy for preschool-aged children, and adjunct therapies for school-aged children and adults
  • Socio-educational measures
  • Behavioral parent training (BPT); : teaches parents how to understand and manage their child's condition, how to manage problematic situations, and how to support positive behavior using operant conditioning.
  • Operant conditioning: an approach in which the desired behavior is modified by positive reinforcement (reward) or negative reinforcement (absence of punishment).



  • Indication: first-line therapy for patients ≥ 6 years of age
  • Substance class: psychostimulant, amphetamine derivative
  • Effect
    • Increased mental performance: improved concentration, cognition (learning, remembering, combining), short-term memory, and fine motor skills
    • Reduced potential for conflict
  • Side effects
    • Adverse sympathomimetic effects
      • Anxiety, agitation, restlessness
      • Difficulties falling asleep (insomnia)
      • Reduced appetite, nausea, vomiting
      • Increased arterial blood pressure, tachycardia
    • Epileptogenic potential: reduces the threshold for seizures and tics
    • Decreased growth rate (reversible if medication is stopped)
    • Euphoria
    • Rarely, priapism
  • Dosage: slow titration schedule, as the drug affects each individual differently
  • Other stimulant alternatives with similar efficacy include amphetamine salts and amphetamine derivatives.

Methylphenidate, amphetamines, and amphetamine derivatives are schedule II prescription drugs!


  • Indications: second-line therapy for patients ≥ 6 years of age; preferred in cases of substance abuse (patient or family member)
  • Substance class: selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (NRI) that increases the concentration of norepinephrine in the synaptic cleft
  • Advantage: : no potential for addiction → not a schedule II prescription drug (normal prescription drug)
  • Limitations: Meta-analyses revealed an increased rate of suicidal actions in children and adolescents being treated with atomoxetine. Close monitoring (especially at the beginning of the therapy) is indicated!
  • Other nonstimulant alternatives with less proven efficacy include clonidine, bupropion, nortriptyline, and SSRIs.



  • The persistence of symptoms after treatment predicts prognosis into adulthood.
  • In 35-65% of patients, symptoms of ADHD and their associated functional impairment will persist into adulthood.
  • Patients with ADHD are at higher risk of injury (both unintentional and self-injury), substance use disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.