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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)


What is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD) refer to a range of challenging behaviours associated with poor attention span.


It is currently estimated that around 1.7% of the UK population, mostly children, have ADD or ADHD. Boys are more likely to be affected. The first signs are generally seen before the age of 5.


What are the symptoms?

Children with ADHD have a range of symptoms, including impulsiveness, restlessness and hyperactivity, as well as inattentiveness.


For example, they might be

  • Easily distracted and unwilling to finish things
  • Restless, fidgety and overactive, constantly running around and climbing over things
  • Inattentive and unable to concentrate on tasks
  • Impulsive, suddenly doing things without thinking first
  • Unable to wait their turn in games, conversations or in a queue



This type of behaviour is common in all children.

It only becomes a problem when these characteristics are excessive (compared with children of the same age) and when it prevents the child from learning and socialising .

Who gets ADHD?

Scientists don’t know exactly what causes ADHD. However, the disorder can run in families, with boys more often affected than girls.


Around 50% of children with ADHD also show clinical features of dyslexia and/or dyspraxia.


Many people with ADHD show a gradual improvement in activity and attention as they grow towards adulthood.


A genetic link?

Studies of twins suggest genes are involved in ADHD. If one identical twin has ADHD, in 80-90 % of cases the other twin will also have it.


See what the Royal college of psychiatrists says about ADHD


How is ADHD diagnosed?

ADHD requires a medical diagnosis by a doctor - usually a child or adolescent psychiatrist, a paediatrician or paediatric neurologist or a GP.

For more of the symptoms, click here.



There are many therapies available for children with ADHD, including anxiety management, cognitive therapy, individual psychotherapy and social skills training. In addition many parents and teachers have found specific management techniques helpful.


Drugs such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) and amphetamine have been very successful in reducing hyperactivity and impulsiveness in the large majority of children with ADHD. This has led to improvements in learning, socialisation and self-esteem.


However, this drug treatment is hugely controversial. There are deep growing concerns about the use of Ritalin and amphetamine in children and their long-term side effects.

What does Ritalin do in the brain?

Both methylphenidate and amphetamines block the re-uptake of dopamine at nerve synapses, effectively increasing the amount of dopamine available. They also increase the amount of noradrenalin in the synapses.


In addition amphetamines (but not Ritalin) seems to increase the actual release of both dopamine and noradrenalin from brain cells.



Amazing results with fish oils

In 2005, Madeleine Portwood, an educational psychologist from Durham investigated the effects of essential fatty acid supplements on the behaviour and learning of primary school children.


The results were astounding.


Fats needed for health

Certain types of fat are vital for life, including two ‘families’ of essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6. Our bodies cannot make them, so we must get them from food.

About 20% of the dry weight of your brain (and 30% of your retina) is made from these long-chain fatty acids.

The link between ADHD and fatty acids


The Durham trials

Over one hundred children from 12 Durham schools took a daily supplement of fish oil for six months.


The supplement (in capsule form) contained Omega-3 and some Omega-6. These are found naturally in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines and in some plant crops such as rapeseed.


Which capsules did they use?



Foods high in omega 3



Rapeseed oil








Amazing results

The authors report that after 6 months, many children suffering from ADHD showed an improvement in their symptoms similar to that seen after treatment with the controversial drug Ritalin.


"The most dramatic improvement was in their concentration” says Madeleine Portwood “some children improved their reading age by the equivalent of four years in the six months trial."


Scientists are looking forward to repeating this study with other children to confirm the results.

Omega three is likely to have general neuro-protective effects and as such might have benefits for a number of brain conditions. Eating more oily fish or taking omega-3 supplements may well prove a prudent step to improve your brain and general health.


For advice and more information on ADHD, visit the ADHD information services