The end of the road for Ritalin?

Computer exercises help hyperactive children increase their attention span

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:29:21 PM

For parents of the more than 300,000 Canadian children suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), research is providing new hope that their kids can be helped without the use of powerful prescription drugs.

For years the stimulant, Ritalin, was the only choice in treating ADHD, but with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Université du Québec à Montréal professor André Achim is testing new drug-free treatments to calm and focus hyperactive kids.

According to Achim, the most promising methods use computer exercises for “intensive attention span training.” The “concentration gym,” for example, displays a set of random lines on a computer screen, which the child then has to memorize and reproduce. Children participate in two to three 15-minute sessions a week, and the tasks get increasingly more difficult as they progress.

“We hope not only to increase the children’s attention span, but also to get them to better control their own behaviour,” says Achim.

The computer-based programs also offer advantages, such as easy-to-understand results, and easy access for parents who could eventually download treatment software over the Internet.

Even more promising, the methods being tested exploit the brain’s capacity to reorganize itself according to the different tasks it performs. For example, the more a violinist practises, the more the part of the brain controlling his or her fingers expands. Achim and his team hope to achieve the same results with the part of the brain that controls concentration.

“We realize now that the brain is much more adaptable than we thought,” says Achim. “We have discovered that, with the right training, children can learn to control themselves.”

So, is this the end of the road for Ritalin?

“Not yet,” says Achim, “because the drug really does reduce certain disruptive behaviours and increase children’s receptiveness to training methods.”

However, the fact the tiny pill will no longer be the only way of treating ADHD is great news for parents and children alike.

André Achim’s research on drug-free treatments for kids suffering from ADHD was funded through SSHRC’s Research Development Initiatives program.