According to the New York Times, some researchers say that almost two million American kids could have a controversial attention disorder called “sluggish cognitive tempo.”
Half of these kids are a subset of the six million currently diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — usually called ADHD. They make up a group of non-hyperactive children who have been sorted into the ADHD group, and could potentially be re-classified as having this new condition.
Another million children not being treated for ADHD might also fall under the sluggish cognitive tempo umbrella.
Characteristics of this disorder include mind-wandering, lethargy, and slow mental processing. These kids are “the daydreamy ones, the ones with work that’s not turned in, leaving names off of papers or skipping questions, things like that,” Keith McBurnett, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, told Alan Schwarz of the New York Times.
“We haven’t even agreed on the symptom list — that’s how early on we are in the process.”
A public health “experiment”
Symptoms that include being “daydreamy” apply to quite a lot of people, and the idea that they constitute a disorder is controversial. If this condition does become recognised as legitimate by the American Psychiatric Association, kids with the diagnosis would likely be prescribed medications for the disorder.
“This is a public health experiment on millions of kids,” Allen Frances, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Duke University, told Schwarz .
The condition has surfaced in the scientific literature occasionally since the 1980s, but this is the first time it has received this much attention — the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology made it the main focus of their January issue, with 136 pages dedicated to the topic.
Some of the researchers who contributed to the journal issue have financial ties to the the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. They’d previously published research on the ADHD drug Strattera as a possible treatment for the condition.
Strattera is a non-stimulant ADHD drug, but Schwarz wrote that ADHD medicines like Adderall, Concerta, and Vyvanse could be repurposed for sluggish cognitive tempo, “because the new condition shares so many symptoms with ADHD.”
Though this disorder may be real for some, it’s possible that this disease is just the latest case of over-medicated kids for normal behaviour. Some researchers think that the same thing’s happened to ADHD.
The guidebook for psychiatric illness, the DSM-V, says that about 5% of American children could have ADHD, but currently 11% of American kids have been diagnosed with the condition, more than twice as many as estimated.
Some say that these growing numbers aren’t an increase in the number of kids with ADHD, but instead reflect a parental desire for good grades and behaviour, along with aggressive marketing by drug companies.
For those reasons, researchers and some on the board of the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology say that scientists should proceed with extreme caution.
In a blog post for Psychology Today, Frances was more blunt:
“Sluggish Cognitive Tempo may possibly be the very dumbest and most dangerous diagnostic idea I have ever encountered,” he wrote. “The very same experts who succeeded in promoting ADHD have now concocted and are promoting a new diagnosis that would be a terrific bonanza for pharmaceuticals, but terrible for kids who would be misdiagnosed and over-treated.”
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