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The use of behavioural interventions can help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to control their behaviour and maintain attention in the same way that drugs do, says a new study out of Nottingham University.

While the study found that medication had the most significant effect on brain function in children with ADHD, the findings may have implications for the dosages of drugs such as Methylphenidate used to treat the condition.

The research team, led by Chris Hollis, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the School of Community Health Sciences, used a computer game based on a system of rewards and penalties to measure the impulsivity and attention of a group of 28 nine- to fifteen-year-old children with ADHD alongside a control group of 28 children. The children had to “catch” green aliens as they appeared on the screen for a short space of time and avoid catching black aliens, who appeared less frequently. Points were gained for successful responses, while points were docked for missed or slow responses.

In order to test the effect of incentives, rewards for appropriate responses were then increased from one point to five points and, in a subsequent test, this reward was replaced by a five point penalty for catching the wrong alien.

The children's brain activity was monitored using an electroencephalogram (EEG) and results showed that the incentives helped children to perform better at the game. While this improvement was not as great as that achieved using a normal dose of the Methylphenidate brand Ritalin, both methods did “normalise” brain activity in the same regions.

"Although medication and behaviour therapy appear to be two very different approaches of treating ADHD,” said Professor Hollis, “our study suggests that both types of intervention may have much in common in terms of their effect on the brain.”

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