By guest blogger Dr Bob Jacobs, Pys. D
Forward by Martin Whitely
Dr Bob Jacobs, a US trained psychologist now working in Queensland, originally wrote this piece for the Youth affairs Network of Queensland in 2005. It highlights some of the tricks used by the ADHD Industry to justify the long term drugging of children with amphetamines and other psychotropic drugs.
When evaluating ADHD research Bob warns us to;
1. Watch out for bad science- like failing to disclose if “ADHD” research subjects have been previously “medicated” and thereby confusing the damage done by prescription amphetamines with the subjects “ADHD”.
2. Watch out for bias- including who paid for the research and have the researchers disclosed any past dealings with commercial interests who may benefit from the research.
3. Think which came first: the chicken or the egg?- are the researchers confusing cause and effect?
4. Look for the false underlying premise- including how the ADHD Industry turns (healthy, normal, human) difference into disease.
Bob’s plain language blog is worth reading and filing for reference when you next consume supposedly ‘independent’ scientific research on the safety and efficacy of ‘ADHD’ drugs.
There is tremendous controversy around the issue of “ADHD”, with lots of passion on all sides. Almost everyone with enough of an interest in “ADHD” to write or research on the subject has a strong point of view. For parents and others trying to read as much as possible and find what feels like the truth for them it is very important to read things with “healthy scepticism” using critical thinking. Don’t accept things as fact just because someone states it strongly or because they have titles and degrees after their name. Use your own common sense, experience and intelligence in analysing what is being said, and especially what it really means.
There are four general guidelines that educated consumers of information need to be mindful of when reading “research” about “ADHD”.
1. Watch out for bad science
Over the past 30 years there have been countless times we have heard about “breakthroughs” in “ADHD” research, and each time the breakthrough has proven to be hollow. Many of these studies have attempted to find differences in the brains of children diagnosed with “ADHD” and “normal children”. These studies often had major flaws in their design which cast significant doubt on the validity of their findings.
Specifically, there have been two major problems with ADHD studies. First, many of them studied a very small sample of children, sometimes fewer than ten. It is a rule of the experimental method that you have to have a sufficient random sample for the results of any study to be able to be generalized to the whole population. Second, the “ADHD” children in these samples typically were taking stimulant drugs, or had taken them in the past. Since we know the potential for stimulant drugs to cause brain damage in children, it raised the question of whether any changes in these children’s brains were because of “ADHD” or the side effects of these dangerous drugs. Other studies did not bother to report on the medication history of their subjects, making it impossible to determine the causes of any difference in brain structure or chemistry. Finally, more recent research has failed to compare previously un-medicated ‘ADHD’ children with ‘non-ADHD’ children of the same age or gender. This is problematic given that brain size is closely associated with age. So comparing the brains of different aged children, whether they are labelled ‘normal’ or labelled with ‘ADHD’, will invariably find differences.
The Key Questions below will help readers to spot some of major problems that have been highlighted with ADHD research.
Key Questions to Ask
- Has the research report provided details of the medication history of it’s subjects?
- If yes, do the authors discuss the effects the medication will have on their subjects and the implications for their findings?
- Has the research compared similar subjects? For example, is the control group of similar age, weight and sex to the experimental group?
2. Watch out for bias
A biased researcher is not a scientific researcher. Objectivity is the essence of the scientific method. The drug companies have sponsored much of the research looking for the existence of “ADHD” over the past three decades, as they want to be able to continue and to expand a business that nets them hundreds of millions of dollars every year. It is a common sense that a researcher supported with a huge grant from a drug company will want to give that company some favourable results. That is exactly why bias is the arch-enemy of objective research. Professional journals in the United States have been so concerned about drug companies “buying” researchers that at least two of them have suspended taking ads for these “ADHD” drugs. When you read a study that supports the medical model of “ADHD” or the use of these dangerous drugs, it is worth investigating who paid the money for the research to be done.
Key Questions to Ask
- Have the authors disclosed any affiliations to companies or organisations that may have an interest in ADHD medication?
- Have the authors provided information about the funding body (or bodies) behind the research, and any relevant affiliations these organisations have?
3. Which came first: the chicken or the egg?
The studies attempting to show that “ADHD” exists have focused on trying to identify differences in the brains or central nervous systems of children with “ADHD” and without it. The problem is that even if such a finding were made, it would be impossible to interpret what it means. It is believed that when people run they produce chemicals in their body that cause “runner’s high”. But how do we know if the running produced the chemicals, or the chemicals caused them to run?
It is not medically possible to determine levels of brain chemicals in a living person. Whenever someone is told they have a “chemical imbalance” it is based on theory and “symptoms”, not laboratory studies. So if we found differences in brain chemicals between a person who feels depressed and one who doesn’t, it would be impossible to determine if the chemicals caused the depression or the depression caused the chemicals. Similarly, if there ever were a discovery of a consistent difference in brain functioning in children with “ADHD”, the question would still remain whether the behaviour caused the difference or the difference caused the behaviour.
4. The false underlying premise
Finally, even if researchers found a consistent difference between children who act a certain way (“ADHD”) and children who don’t, and even if they could somehow prove that the difference caused the behaviours, there is no reason to believe there is any “disorder”. There may be physiological differences between people who are right-handed and left-handed, or people who prefer the colour red over the colour blue. But it doesn’t make either group “sick”.
We know that people have individual physical differences, but it is dangerous ground to say that those differences are a “disorder”, just because they are in the minority, or because they cause problems with fitting into society’s rigid structures (like public school). So all these millions of dollars are being spent to try to prove something which will, if proven, be meaningless. Maybe children with higher activity levels, or children with shorter attention spans, or children who don’t like doing their homework, tend to have some physical difference. That will still not prove that “ADHD” exists as a valid “disorder”.
Dr Bob Jacobs’ suggestions for Further Reading
Armstrong, T. 1997. The Myth of the A.D.D Child: 50 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span Without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion. Penguin Books, Ringwood. Chapters 1, 2 and 3 are available online here: Chapter 1, Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.
Breggin P. 2001. Talking Back to Ritalin, Revised : What Doctors Aren’t Telling You About Stimulantsand ADHD. Perseus Books.
Whitely, M. 2010. Speed Up and Sit Still: The Controversies of ADHD Diagnosis and Treatment. UWA Publishing.
Baumeister, A. & Hawkins, M. 2001. Incoherence of Neuroimaging Studies of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Clinical Neuropharmacology, Vol. 24
Cohen, D. & Leo, J. 2004. An Update on ADHD Neuroimaging Research. The Journal of Mind and Behaviour. Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 161-166.
Furman, L. 2005. What is Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)? Journal of Child Neurology. Vol. 20, No. 12, pp 994 – 1003. Available online here.
Leo, J. & Cohen, D. 2003. Broken Brains or Flawed Research: A Critical Review of ADHD Neuroimaging Research. Journal of Mind and Behaviour. Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 29-56.
Timimi, S. 2004. Developing non-toxic approaches to helping children who could be diagnosed with ADHD and their families: Reflections of a UK clinician. In Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry. Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 41-52. Available online here.
Timimi, S. 2004. A Critique of the International Consensus Statement on ADHD. In Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review. Vol. 7 No. 1, pp. 59-63.
Giù Le Mani Dai Bambini. 2005. International Consensus: ADHD and Abuse in the Prescription ofPsychopharmaceutical Drugs to Minors. Available Online: http://www.giulemanidaibambini.org/consensus/consensus_en.html.
International Centre for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology. 2002. Debunking the Science Behind ADHD as a Brain Disorder. ICSPP. Available online: http://www.icspp.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=37&Itemid=48.
Jacobs, B. 2002. Queensland Children at Risk: The Overdiagnosis of “ADHD” and the Overuse of Stimulant Medication. Youth Affairs Network of Queensland, West End. Available online: http://www.yanq.org.au/content/view/207/9/.
Leo, J. 2000. Attention Deficit Disorder: Good Science or Good Marketing? Skeptic. Vol. 8, No. 1, pp 63-69.
Martin, R. 2005. Research Reports for the Non-Scientist. Youth Affairs Network of Queensland, West End. Available Online at: http://www.yanq.org.au/images/stories/Documents/martin-research_reports_ns.pdf.
 The Parenting Centre, Queensland accessed 12 April 2011