For years, the growth in the number of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has prompted skeptics to ask whether the condition is over-diagnosed. Couldn’t some of the nearly one in 10 adolescents diagnosed in the United States just be more rambunctious than their classmates? Or are some simply immature for their grade, as one 2010 study suggested? And why do some kids appear to outgrow ADHD with age? Without a single medical test to prove otherwise, the uncertainty surrounding the disorder — and the drugs needed to control it — has been hard to quiet.
It’s important progress, then, that over the summer the Food and Drug Administration approved the first brain wave test to help detect ADHD in children. Sensors attached to a child’s head measure the ratio of two electrical impulses given off by the brain. Certain combinations of the brain waves, known as theta and beta, are more prevalent in children with ADHD, according to data provided to the FDA by its maker, Georgia-based NEBA Health. The non-invasive test takes less than 20 minutes.
For now, the new device’s best use is to back up traditional testing methods, such as behavioral questionnaires and psychometric tests. That could, in some cases, increase diagnostic costs. Yet the still-subjective nature of ADHD diagnoses today can undermine patient care, and any move toward a more objective standard will help.