Brain-Based Treatments for ADHD – What Parents Should Know

Jim Otis

Do you know what’s happening in the brain of someone with ADHD? When you are making the complicated decision about whether to try medication for your child (or yourself), it helps to know as much as you can about the brain, and about how brain-based interventions address the condition you are trying to address.

One in six first-graders has a diagnosed learning disability, and many more struggle with undiagnosed learning or behavioral problems. Science is beginning to understand the neurological underpinnings of ADHD, but mainstream treatment methodologies are slow to catch up.

I have the pleasure of working with children with ADHD and learning disabilities, and I get to see these children make dramatic improvements. With at-home brain exercises, children can become more successful at school, calmer and happier at home, and better prepared to grow and thrive.

While the topic of brain-based interventions for ADHD is an enormous one that cannot be covered in a brief article, here are some basic points parents should know about ADHD, your child’s brain, and brain-related treatment options:

1. The rates of ADHD, autism, and learning disabilities are increasing rapidly. Some of the factors implicated are sedentary lifestyle, increased hours in front of a TV, and toxins in our food and environment.

2. Dealing with ADHD is expensive (but you probably know that already). The total cost per year for parents (including medical costs and work loss) and schools was $14,500 for each child in the United States in 2005.

3. The prevailing medical treatment for ADHD is based on medications like Ritalin, Adderall, and Strattera that block the re-uptake of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters in the brain. All have potential side effects associated with them, and not all children with ADHD respond positively to medical interventions.

4. Research in the last ten years shows that many neurological disorders are due to a breakdown of communication between different parts of the brain. There’s nothing wrong with the individual areas of the brain, but they don’t coordinate and work together, and this causes what is widely referred to in academic circles as a “functional disconnection.”

5. The two sides of the brain have different, but complimentary functions, as shown in the following table.

Understanding details Understanding the big picture
Verbal communication Social skills and nonverbal communication
Small muscle control Large muscle control
IQ (Intelligence Quotient) EQ (Emotional Quotient)
Spelling Reading comprehension
Math calculations Math reasoning
Linear and logical thinking Understanding abstract concepts
Intention: initiating activity Attention: maintaining focus

6. When communication between the two sides of the brain breaks down, one side becomes dominate and the other falls behind in its activity and development. Overall brain function suffers, with detrimental effects, as you can see below.

Left-brain deficiencies are especially prevalent in conditions of: Right-brain deficiencies are especially prevalent in conditions of:
Dyslexia ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, and Autism
Processing disorders Tourette’s syndrome and Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Central auditory processing disorder Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and Conduct disorder (CD)
Learning disabilities Nonverbal learning disorder (NLD)
Dysgraphia (poor hand writing) Pervasive developmental disorder (PDD)

7. Natural treatment methods, while less common than medication, can be effective for some people. Outcome studies show remarkable success with drug-free treatment for children with ADHD. In a recent study (Pub Med ID # 21061929) published in the International Journal of Adolescent Medical Health, children were given twelve weeks of neurological rehabilitation designed to improve the connection between right and left sides of the brain and increase the activity of the right hemisphere of the brain.

All children were assessed with the Wechsler Individualized Achievement Test and the Brown Attention Deficit Disorder Scale before and after intervention. All of the children rated as having ADD/ADHD on the Brown scale before the intervention. After twelve weeks of neurological remediation, children showed greater than two years improvement in all but one of the WIAT subsets.

8. Drug-free treatment generally involves strengthening connections between the two sides of the brain, and then exercising the weak side.

With all that we’ve learned about brain science and ADHD over the last decade, the options available for parents to support their kids have expanded significantly. When parents approach their child’s ADHD with a plan that includes a combination of training, treatments and accommodations, the outcomes for their child and family are significantly improved.

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