Science

Paying attention to ADHD

Try to focus

Despite the widespread belief that Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) medications may damage patients’ brains, recent RUG doctorate recipient Lizanne Schweren’s research demonstrated that is simply not true. But for some students coping with the condition, social understanding of what it is like to have ADHD could prove more helpful than a pill.
By Carolina Carta / Animation René Lapoutre

Lizanne Schweren researched the brain function of people with Attention Deficit /Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) who took medication for the condition and found that the treatment did not cause long term damage.

Even for people who are diagnosed with ADHD, being able to succeed academically can still be a struggle.

RUG student Malva Freire Regueira has the condition and has developed coping mechanisms to help her focus, such as drawing while attending lectures and borrowing her classmates’ notes.

Although there is growing evidence that ADHD medication may not be harmful, Regueira says that she would rather not take drugs out of concern of becoming dependent.

While the RUG offers resources for students with conditions that can impact their ability to study, they are not always equally helpful to everyone.

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Schweren is now working as a postdoc at the University of Cambridge, but was awarded her PhD by the University of Groningen late last year for her research into ADHD. Her findings could help to shed more light on treatment for an oft stigmatized disorder.

She researched ADHD patients whose level of medication ranged from occasional intake to daily treatment for several years, and her work revealed that brain structure and function within this sample group did not differ significantly. There was also no evidence that children’s behaviour, cognitive performance or emotional functioning are impaired by taking medication.

‘Listen, listen, listen’

ADHD is most commonly associated with children, but it can persist throughout adulthood. That presents a challenge for people with the condition who want to pursue higher education, as RUG student Malva Freire Regueira can attest to personally.

Today a 19-year-old bachelor student in International and European Law, Regueira was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 14 back home in Spain. Back then, her teachers were not exactly sympathetic to her situation, continually calling for her to stop squirming in her chair and to behave like her classmates.

‘If I’m not looking at you, it actually means that I’m listening’, Regueira says, recalling how she would try to explain her condition to her high school teachers whenever they would call her out. ‘I remember sitting there, looking at the teacher and suddenly I came back to reality. Fifteen minutes had passed and I didn’t listen to one word. My brain would say “listen, listen, listen” — but I was just listening to my own thoughts.’

Hard to diagnose

Reguiera’s condition was identified at a relatively young age, but it is common for people to be diagnosed later in life. ‘It’s more difficult to diagnose ADHD in adulthood because it manifests itself in a different way compared to childhood’, explains Schweren. ‘The hyperactivity you can see, but when it’s not there anymore, it’s difficult to identify the disease because [the individuals affected] don’t run around. It just looks different.’

Regueira believes that she was actually lucky to have quite obvious symptoms because that led to a faster diagnosis. ‘Diagnosis is like a glimpse of hope for people’, she says. ‘It is way tougher to think that you’re weird or stupid than to think that you actually have a disorder.’

Resources

Despite her ADHD, Reguiera was always an excellent student, in part because of coping mechanisms. She discovered that colouring while listening to a lecture helped her to focus: Her brain would receive immediate stimuli and would thereby be prevented from wandering too much.

But the transition from high school to university can be especially challenging for students with ADHD. With that in mind, the RUG’s Student Service Centre offers support programmes and counselling for students with learning disorders, such as dyslexia, ADD and ADHD. Effective studying courses (which provide support for study and time planning) and a buddy system are aimed at ADHD students in particular.

But not every student with a functional impairment is willing to state their own condition when beginning their studies, as RUG student counsellor Jos Karssies points out. Karssies says that some students do not tick this information box because ‘they have just finished high school and they don’t want to start off university with a label’. Out of consideration to privacy, the university does not have exact numbers on how many RUG students apply for ADHD, ADD and dyslexia support, according to Karssies.

Help from friends

As for Regueira, she had different reasons not to officially state on paper that she has ADHD. In her personal experience, she says that the Student Service Centre resources amounted to simply providing ADHD students with more time to do their exams, which was not what she needed. ‘I need help processing the information, I don’t need help writing it down.’

As such, she decided to rely on her own personal resources to cope with the disorder. Even though she knows it will be impossible for her to pay attention most of the time, she attends every class so that words that she passively absorbs during the lecture will eventually sound familiar and pop up in her head while studying. Her friends and classmates also give her their lecture notes, which plays a vital role in her university life. ‘If I didn’t have other people’s help, I would never pass any of my classes’, she says.

Unmedicated

Unlike many people with ADHD, Regueira does not take medications because she is afraid of becoming dependent and not being able to make it by herself if she ever loses access to them. Stimulants are the most common drug used to treat both severe and moderate ADHD symptoms, which mainly help focus thoughts and control hyperactivity. They are not meant to cure the disease, but they help in the short term by calming the symptoms. Schweren says that 80 per cent of patients who take stimulants to tackle ADHD symptoms respond positively to the medication.

The real impact of ADHD medications is still a matter of dispute among the lay public. Misgivings that characterise reporting on these types of drugs appear linked to the alleged harm they do to the brain due to their influence on the dopamine system, whose activity is responsible for addiction. However, scientific studies, including Schweren’s, show that there has been no indication that there are long-term negative effects on the developing brain: In fact, some studies show that the effect can be positive.

Hyperfocus

Television shows and films are also inclined to depict all ADHD sufferers as disruptive white boys, but Regueira wonders: where are the girls? Where are the children of colour? She feels that such stereotypical depictions may contribute to under-diagnosis of the disease among women and minorities. In real life, Regueira has also been told that ADHD is just an excuse. ‘Live one day within my brain and tell me that it doesn’t exist!’, she says.

In her experience, not being too tough on yourself and getting diagnosed are the keys to facing the disorder. Recognising that it is a condition can be a revelation: ‘It’s not that I’m lazy or that I’m stupid, it’s just that my brain struggles completing tasks which are easy for other people’, she says. ‘I can succeed in life.’

Nederlands

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