Behavioral shaping with immediate rewards can work in the same way as stimulant drugs such as Ritalin, Concerta and Adderall to treat ADHD, according to UK based research published in Biological Psychiatry.
Researchers at Nottingham University have discovered that for children diagnosed with ADHD, rewarding positive behavior straight away, and penalizing impulsive behavior can normalize activity in the same parts of the brain as stimulant drugs.
What is ADHD?
ADHD or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder affects millions of children in the U.S. and can lead to inattention, hyperactivity, impulsive behavior, low self-esteem, relationship problems, and poor performance in school.
The majority of children with ADHD are diagnosed before the age of 7, and often the signs are evident much earlier. The signs are more obvious during activities that require focused mental effort from the child.
Scans have revealed that the brains of children with ADHD have a slightly altered structure and anatomy, and reduced activity in the parts of the brain associated with attention and activity. The reasons for this are not clear, but there are various factors that can increase the likelihood of a child developing ADHD:
- Hereditary factors: 25% of children with ADHD have a relative with the disorder
- Toxin exposure during pregnancy: Women who smoke, drink heavily, or use drugs during pregnancy are more likely to have children with ADHD.
- Toxin exposure during childhood: Exposure to lead or PCBs in infancy can increase the chances of developing ADHD.
How are stimulant drugs used to treat ADHD?
Children diagnosed with mild to severe ADHD are usually given stimulant drugs such as Ritalin, Concerta or Adderall. These drugs increase and balance the level of neurotransmitters in the brain, which can reduce the symptoms of ADHD, such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior.
The downside of stimulant drugs is that they don’t work for long and the effects quickly wear off. Side effects of the drugs can include loss of appetite, weight loss, sleeping problems, irritability as medication wears off, twitches or jerky muscle movements, brain shrinkage, and reduced rate of growth. In rare cases, taking these drugs has led to heart related deaths in children and adolescents.
What does the study show?
Because previous research has suggested that children with ADHD respond well to behavior shaping with on-the-spot rewards, the team at Nottingham University designed a computer game to test this theory. During the game children had to catch aliens of one color, while avoiding aliens of a different color.
After the children had played the game once, the instant reward for catching aliens of the right color was increased fivefold, as was the penalty for the impulsive action of grabbing an alien of the other color. The children then played the game again, and it was clear that the increased incentives improved their performance.
Brain activity was monitored using an EEG while the game was being played. This showed that the on-the-spot rewards provided by the game were normalizing activity in the same regions of the brain as stimulant drugs do.
Behavior shaping by reinforcing positive behavior and penalizing negative behavior has been used as a method of treating ADHD for a long time, but it is clear that this must be done instantly for it to have a normalizing effect on the brain of a child with ADHD.
Although it is hoped that behavioral therapy using rewards can reduce the use of stimulant drugs such as Ritalin, Concerta and Adderall, it can be difficult for parents and teachers to administer instant rewards or penalties to a child with ADHD in everyday life.
Other natural treatments for ADHD
All children need love and support from their parents, but this is particularly crucial in children with ADHD. Show your child lots of affection and make sure you compliment them rather than focusing on negative behavior. Try to remain calm and patient even when the child is out of control, and be realistic in your expectations of improvement.
Keeping to a regular routine can help children with ADHD as they have difficulties coping with change. Have regular meal, nap and bed times, and tell them in advance if something unusual is going to happen. Try to identify situations that increase their symptoms such as going to the supermarket and avoid these. Make sure both you and your child get plenty of rest.
Try to find something at which your child excels. Many children with ADHD are good at art, music, or dancing, and this can help to increase their self esteem as long as they aren’t pushed to do something they aren’t ready for.
Some alternative treatments used to treat the symptoms of ADHD include:
- Regular yoga sessions
- Eliminating sugar, caffeine, food coloring and various allergens from the diet
- Taking a general vitamin and mineral supplement
- Taking a herbal supplement such hypericum, ginseng, and ginkgo
- Getting plenty of omega 3 fatty acids from eating fatty fish or taking Omega Kids.
- Consuming Absolute Greens which provides glyconutrients necessary for brain function
- Neurofeedback training