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The University of Southampton

Psychology professor at forefront of ground-breaking ADHD project

Published: 8 December 2014

Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke will lead one of two data collection sites as Co-Principal Investigator on a grant led by Professor Mark Johnson (Birkbeck, University of London) to receive a £500,000 award from MQ: Transforming Mental Health (as part of their Psy-IMPACT programme) for a ground-breaking project Attention Control Training for Infants at risk of ADHD.

Psy-IMPACT is a new MQ initiative, designed to support research to improve the clinical range, effectiveness and efficiency of evidence-based psychological interventions and the ADHD project data will be gathered at the Universities of Southampton and London.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common childhood disorders, affecting up to 5% of the general population, and can significantly impact on education, social and life outcomes. Symptoms include difficulties paying attention and controlling behaviour, and hyperactivity (over-activity).

It is thought that ADHD symptoms start in infancy, well before the disorder is likely to be diagnosed. These early emerging symptoms disrupt learning and development, which in turn can lead to later social and educational difficulties.

Drug treatments for ADHD are effective, however, they are not appropriate for young children and are only licensed for children aged over 6 years. Psychological treatments that begin after diagnosis have had only limited success. This is perhaps because they are being given too late in development. Approaches designed to prevent the development of, rather than treat, ADHD symptoms have not yet been tested.

This project, one of just 4 chosen from 200 applications, will take a radical new approach to developing early interventions for ADHD. The approach is based on the theory that targeting specific aspects of attention early in development can improve cognitive development and behaviour and reduce the risk of developing ADHD later on.

There is growing evidence that infants who go on to develop ADHD show early signs of reduced “executive attention” with, for example, shorter periods of focused attention during play-based as well as screen-based tasks. Early interventions that strengthen attention are predicted to reduce later ADHD symptoms.

This MQ: Transforming Mental Health project is exciting because it is the first trial to combine state-of-the-art eye tracking technology with cutting-edge neuro-scientific theory for ADHD. The computer-based intervention is designed to improve attention in infants who are more likely to develop ADHD, for example, because they have an older brother or sister diagnosed with the disorder.

The researchers will undertake a trial of a new, computer-based attention training treatment for infants at increased risk for ADHD.

The training approach uses state of the art technology to link attention allocation to rewarding images and outcomes on the screen. An eye tracker can tell exactly where an infant is looking on a computer screen, and infants can control what they will see next appear on the screen by where they look. The team have already shown this approach can strengthen concentration and attention in typically developing infants.

The researchers are now interested in whether these effects can also be seen in infants at risk for ADHD, and will assess whether there are effects on early signs of ADHD behaviours, and what the brain processes underpinning such effects might be.

Fifty 10-month-old infants at risk for ADHD will take part in the study. Half will get 12 home-based sessions of the attention training treatment, over 3 months. The others will passively view cartoons and videos as a control condition. Infants will be assessed in the laboratory and at home immediately before and after training, and will be followed-up with additional laboratory visits at 24 and 36 months.

The researchers hope to find out whether infant attention training improves cognitive functioning and reduces early signs of emerging ADHD. If this is the case, then it will be tested in a larger, multi-centre effectiveness trial across the UK.

Set up with the support of the Wellcome Trust and Institute of Social Psychiatry, MQ: Transforming Mental Health is a new charity that aims to improve quality of life for people and families affected by mental illness.


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