How ADHD Is Diagnosed
If your child has a sore throat, a quick throat swab can
determine whether it’s strep. But learning whether your child has attention-deficit
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is not as easy, because there isn’t one simple test
for it. To diagnose ADHD, doctors ask teachers and parents whether the child
has common ADHD symptoms, such as trouble concentrating or impulsivity. Some
kids may also take verbal or written tests.
Challenges of Diagnosing ADHD
It can be hard to diagnose ADHD because not every child who
has it is exactly the same. Some kids don’t have the typical behaviors, such as
inattention. Others have different symptoms, like moodiness or obsessive-compulsive
disorder (OCD). So some doctors have started to try another method. They are
using high-tech brain scans to diagnose ADHD based on blood flow and brain wave
activity. But do these scans really work?
Looking Inside the Brain
Imaging scans are often used in medicine. They give doctors
a view inside the body to help diagnose disease. An electrocardiogram (EKG) can
tell whether the heart’s electrical activity is working normally. Magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI) can find injuries or blockages in organs like the
kidneys and liver. Some doctors believe that, in much the same way, looking
inside the brain can help them diagnose mental health conditions such as
depression, autism, and ADHD.
What Brain Scans Show
Scientists have used brain scans such as single-photon
emission computed tomography (SPECT), positron emission tomography (PET), and functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the past to study differences in the
brains of people with ADHD. For example, they have found that the brains
of people with ADHD mature more slowly. Also, when people with ADHD perform
a task, certain areas of
their brain are more or less active compared to people who don’t have ADHD.
Using Scans to Diagnose ADHD
Some doctors are also starting to use these kinds of scans
to diagnose ADHD in children, and to see how well treatment is working. One
test they use is the aforementioned SPECT. In this test, a radioactive
substance is injected into the child. The substance travels to the brain and
allows doctors to measure blood flow and brain activity, often while the child
is performing a task. SPECT is not yet FDA-approved for diagnosing ADHD.
First Brain Wave Test
In July 2013, the FDA approved the first imaging test to
diagnose children and teens with ADHD. It’s called the Neuropsychiatric
EEG-Based Assessment Aid (NEBA) System. The test records the type and number of
brain waves that nerve cells give off each second. It looks for brain wave
patterns that are unique to kids with ADHD. The FDA
says the device can help doctors confirm a diagnosis of ADHD.
Cautions About Brain Imaging
Brain imaging has a lot of potential for diagnosing
conditions like ADHD. Yet experts
warn that these tests are still very new and there is much more to learn
about them. Brain imaging tests are very expensive. A SPECT scan can cost more
than $3,500. It also exposes children to radiation, and some
experts say there isn’t enough evidence yet that it is an effective way to
The Future of Brain Imaging
According to an article in Virtual Mentor, the American Medical
Association’s ethics journal, a lot more research still needs to be done to
confirm that brain imaging can diagnose mental health conditions. As more
studies are done, doctors are learning more about the brain and how it differs
in people with ADHD. What they learn could help them develop new and better imaging
tests for ADHD and other mental health conditions.