Debunking the Science Behind Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder as a "Brain Disorder"

By Galves, Albert; Walker, David | Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, April 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Debunking the Science Behind Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder as a "Brain Disorder"


Galves, Albert, Walker, David, Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry


This article is a reaction to the following three statements that were included in a brochure published by Division 29 (Psychotherapy) of the American Psychological Association (APA) and Celltech Pharmaceuticals:

"ADD/ADHD is generally considered a neuro-chemical disorder."

"Most people with ADD/ADHD are born with the disorder, though it may not be recognized until adulthood."

"ADHD is not caused by poor parenting, a difficult family environment, poor teaching or inadequate nutrition."

The article reviews research that contradicts the statements and concludes that the statements are not adequately supported by scientific evidence.

Keywords: ADHD; brain disorder; family; school environment

This article is adapted from a letter to Dr. Alice Rubenstein that was written by the authors and cosigned by 10 other members of Division 29 (Psychotherapy) of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Dr. Rubenstein was the director of the Brochure Project, a joint effort of Division 29 and Celltech Pharmaceuticals to publish and distribute brochures on attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In a letter dated February 16, 2002, Dr. Galves expressed concern that the following three statements that appear in the brochures were not supported by adequate scientific evidence:

"ADD/ADHD is generally considered a neuro-chemical disorder."

"Most people with ADD/ADHD are born with the disorder, though it may not be recognized until adulthood."

"ADHD is not caused by poor parenting, a difficult family environment, poor teaching or inadequate nutrition."

Dr. Rubenstein's reply of March 17, 2002 included supporting references provided to her by Dr. Robert Resnick and Dr. Kallman Heller of Division 29.

This article is a review of those references as well as others regarding the three statements in question. This article has been cited by numerous authors in numerous countries but has never been published by Division 29.

"ADD/ADHD IS GENERALLY CONSIDERED A NEURO-CHEMICAL DISORDER"

Although ADD/ADHD may generally be considered, by popular opinion, to be a "neurochemical disorder," there is no scientific evidence to back this claim. The scientific record contains only equivocal and inconsistent evidence that the brain physiology of individuals diagnosed with ADD/ADHD is different from that of individuals not diagnosed with the disorder (Barkley, 1990; Goldstein & Goldstein, 1998; Ross & Ross, 1982). Even if there were more solid and conclusive evidence, it would not support the implication that ADD/ ADHD is caused by these biological dynamics.

All that we can derive from a careful review of the literature is that there is evidence of a correlation between the biological dynamics and the ADHD category. Because this evidence is entirely correlational and the brain is a living, functioning organ constantly responding to its environment with complex neurochemical and other neurofunctional changes, it is just as likely (and perhaps more likely) that the biological dynamic is a result of an interplay of emotions, thoughts, intentions and behaviors experienced by the diagnosed individuals. The following research findings support such a perspective.

* Schwartz, Stoessel, Baxter, Martin, and Phelps (1996) of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that a group of people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder had "abnormalities" in their brains. Half of the group received drug therapy; the other half received cognitive behavioral "talk therapy." All of the patients improved; and when Schwartz checked their brains, he found that their brains had changed in the same ways. Presumably, the cognitive behavioral therapy had the same impact on the physiology of the brain, as did the biological therapy.

* With more frequent diagnosis of ADHD among children in the United Kingdom, Visser and Jehan (2009) reviewed existing evidence for the "veracity" of the disorder as a "biomedical entity," particularly studies originating from the biopsychiatric perspective using neuroimaging and behavioral genetics as their methods. …

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