Can ADHD Be Diagnosed With Brain Waves?

The FDA recently approved a technique for evaluating brain waves (using electrical recordings or EEG) that may be used to help diagnose ADHD. Does this mean we are moving closer to a more “objective” biological approach to diagnosis? 

Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s clear that ADHD has a biological component. There’s certainly evidence that we can see differences in brain functioning in kids with ADHD when compared to kids without ADHD. But that’s where the fuzziness comes in.

Complex disorders like ADHD don’t easily yield to “either/or” diagnostic approaches. ADHD symptoms are varied, change with age, and are heavily influenced by environmental context. If you were to evaluate a large group of children, using the symptoms of ADHD, you wouldn’t get two clear-cut groups (one with ADHD, one without ADHD). You’d see a range of symptoms, with some kids having many, some having none, and many having some.

It makes sense to try to cut through this “noise” using biological technology. But it is unrealistic to think that it will provide a magical approach to diagnosis. Skilled clinicians will still need to collect all the information they now collect, and use their judgments to decide if intervention is required. Evaluating brain waves may add some good information to this diagnostic process, but it is unlikely that it will become the gold standard for diagnosing ADHD. ADHD is just too complex of a developmental construct to reduce it only to brain activity.

So while this approach is certainly worth pursuing, it’s wise to not promise – or expect – too much from it in the near (or far) future.

EEG via Shutterstock.com

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