Mind Games That Matter: Training to Stay Focused ; Attention Deficit Disorder Can Be Combatted without Medication, Study Shows

By Goleman, Daniel | International New York Times, May 14, 2014 | Go to article overview

Mind Games That Matter: Training to Stay Focused ; Attention Deficit Disorder Can Be Combatted without Medication, Study Shows


Goleman, Daniel, International New York Times


Research suggests meditation and mental exercises may be better than drugs at helping people cope with attention problems.

Which will it be -- the berries or the chocolate dessert? Homework or X-Box? Finish that memo, or roam Facebook?

Such quotidian decisions test a mental ability called "cognitive control," the capacity to maintain focus on an important choice while ignoring other impulses. Poor planning, wandering attention and trouble inhibiting impulses all signify lapses in cognitive control. Now a growing stream of research suggests that strengthening this mental muscle, usually with exercises in so- called mindfulness, may help children and adults cope with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and its adult equivalent, attention deficit disorder.

The studies come amid growing disenchantment with the first-line treatment for these conditions: drugs.

In 2007 researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, published a study finding that the incidence of ADHD among teens in Finland, along with difficulties in cognitive functioning and related emotional disorders like depression, were virtually identical to rates among teens in the United States. The real difference? Most teens with ADHD in the United States were taking medication; most teens in Finland were not.

"It raises questions about using medication as a first line of treatment," said Susan Smalley, a behavior geneticist at U.C.L.A. and the lead author.

In a large study published last year in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers reported that while most young people with ADHD benefit from medications in the first year, these effects generally wane by the third year, if not sooner.

"There are no long term, lasting benefits from taking ADHD medications," said James Swanson, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, and an author of the study, who researches treatments for ADHD. "But mindfulness seems to be training the same areas of the brain that have reduced activity in ADHD."

"That's why mindfulness might be so important -- it seems to get at the causes."

Depending on which scientist is speaking, cognitive control may be defined as the delay of gratification, impulse management, emotional self-regulation or self-control, the suppression of irrelevant thoughts, and the allocation of attention or learning readiness. This singular mental ability, researchers have found, predicts success both in school and work life.

"Cognitive control is the foundation of the whole system that allows us to act effectively toward our goals in a complicated environment," said Adam Gazzeley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. "Without this, everything fails -- attention, decision-making, working memory, communications."

Cognitive control increases from about age 4 to age 12, then plateaus, said Betty J. Casey, director of the Sackler Institute for Developmental Neurobiology at Weill Cornell Medical College. Teenagers find it difficult to suppress their impulses, as any parent knows. …

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