Computer training for ADHD doesn’t deliver

"Our research shows that it's the working part of working memory that is related to ADHD symptoms," says Michael Kofler, "but unfortunately the current cognitive training protocols are only targeting the memory part. So it's not surprising that they're not working." (Credit: Tom Woodward/Flickr)

Researchers report that computer-based training programs for children with ADHD don’t work—and many don’t even target the right part of the memory.

Researchers took a critical look at 25 studies evaluating the effectiveness of cognitive training programs. These programs use computer-aided activities that are designed to help children improve brain functions thought to be underdeveloped in children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

“We found that these treatments are not effective for treating children with ADHD,” says Michael Kofler, assistant professor and director of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education’s Children’s Learning Clinic.


“They don’t improve ADHD symptoms or behavior, they don’t improve academic achievement, and in many cases do not improve the cognitive functions they claim to target.”

Memory mix-up

According to Kofler, many of these programs are intended to target working memory, which is an area of difficulty for many children with ADHD. Working memory plays a key role in children’s learning, and affects reading, math performance, writing, and note-taking, interpreting social cues, and preventing minds from wandering.

Previous research by Kofler and colleagues also indicates that working memory plays a key role in core ADHD symptoms including the lack of attentive behavior, excess gross motor activity (hyperactivity), and impulsivity.

Interestingly, although many of the interventions claim to improve working memory, these programs actually trained short-term memory.

There are two primary parts to working memory: the memory component, which involves holding information in our head for a few seconds, and the working component, which involves processing or doing something with that information.

“Our research shows that it’s the working part of working memory that is related to ADHD symptoms,” Kofler says, “but unfortunately the current cognitive training protocols are only targeting the memory part. So it’s not surprising that they’re not working.”

Focus on strengths, too

Kofler says this is a particularly important topic because parents are currently spending thousands of dollars in hopes of getting help for their children.

“Right now, the only effective treatments for ADHD are medication and behavioral interventions,” Kofler says. “We’re working on changing that, but none of the cognitive training programs out there right now are helpful for treating ADHD.”

Kofler says that cognitive training is a promising new direction for helping children with ADHD, but emphasizes that what’s currently out there misses the mark.

“We need to develop better interventions for children with ADHD that focus on their strengths and not just their difficulties,” he says. “If we do not consider all aspects of ADHD—including strengths and weaknesses—we are unlikely to provide the best possible services for these children.”

The Children’s Learning Clinic is currently recruiting children ages 8 through 12 who have been diagnosed with, or suspected of having, ADHD to participate in a clinical research study to help us identify strengths and build capabilities for children with ADHD.

Kofler worked with colleagues at the University of Central Florida on the study, which appears in Clinical Psychology Review.

Source: University of Virginia