An intensive, five-week working-memory training program shows promise in relieving some of the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children, a new study suggests. Researchers found significant changes for students who completed the program in areas such as attention, ADHD symptoms, planning and organization, initiating tasks and working memory.
“This program really seemed to make a difference for many of the children with ADHD,” says Steven Beck, co-author of the study an associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University.“ It is not going to replace medication, but it could be a useful complementary therapy.” The study findings were published recently in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology.
The researchers tested software developed by a Swedish company, Cogmed, in conjunction with the Karolinska Institute, a medical university in Stockholm, Sweden. The software is designed to improve one of the major deficiencies found in people with ADHD — working memory.
Working memory is the ability to hold onto information long enough to achieve a goal. For example, you have to remember a phone number long enough to dial it. Students have to remember the passage of a book they just read to understand what they’re currently reading.
“Working memory is critical in everyday life, and certainly for academic success, but it is one of the things that is very difficult for children with ADHD,” Hanson says. The study involved 52 students, ages 7 to 17, who attended a private school in Columbus, Ohio, that serves children with learning disabilities, many of whom also have an ADHD diagnoses. All the children used the software in their homes, under the supervision of their parents and the researchers.
The software includes a set of 25 exercises that students had to complete within five to six weeks. Each session is 30 to 40 minutes long. The exercises are in a computer-game format and are designed to help students improve their working memory. For example, in one exercise a robot speaks numbers in a certain order, and the student has to click on the numbers the robot spoke, on the computer screen, in the opposite order.
“At first the kids love it, because it is like a game,” Puffenberger says. “But the software has an algorithm built in that makes the exercises harder as the students get better. So the children are always challenged.”
Parents of the participating students completed measures of the children’s ADHD symptoms and working memory before the intervention, one month after treatment and four months after treatment.
Results showed that parents generally rated their children as improving on inattention, overall number of ADHD symptoms, working memory, planning and organization and in initiating tasks. These changes were evident both immediately after treatment, and four months later. On individual measures, between one-fourth and one-third of the children showed clinically significant progress, in other words, enough progress to be easily visible to their parents.
Beck says this is the first published study testing this software in the U.S. One of the strengths of the study is that it used a very typical sample of children with ADHD, other studies in Sweden had excluded children who were on medication. Most children with ADHD are on some kind of medication, so it helps to know how this intervention works in these cases, he explains. In this sample, 60 percent of the students were on medication. The results showed the program was equally effective regardless of whether they were on medication.
“Medication for ADHD does not help directly with working memory, and the training program does, so it can be useful,” Beck says.
The researchers now plan on extending the work of the study by using more objective measures of children’s progress after using the program. We’ll keep you posted on the results.
Kathy Sena is a freelance journalist specializing in health and parenting issues and is the mother of a 15-year-old son. Visit her blog at parenttalktoday.com.