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Keywords:

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder;
  • Attentional capacity;
  • Probe task;
  • Event-related potentials;
  • P3;
  • Methylphenidate

In the present study it was investigated whether the smaller P3s in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) children are caused by a shortage of capacity underlying P3 processes or whether they are due to a capacity allocation problem. Also, effects of methylphenidate on these processes were investigated. Performance and event-related potentials (ERPs) of 14 ADHD and 14 control children were measured using an irrelevant-probe technique. Three types of task irrelevant visual probes (standards, deviants, and novels) were presented against the background of two visual tasks that varied in task difficulty. The parietal P3 wave was measured in response to task stimuli and probes. ADHD subjects made significantly fewer correct detections than normal controls in both the easy and the hard tasks. Controls showed an enhanced P3 to task-relevant stimuli in the hard task, whereas ADHD children did not. Probe (novel) P3 amplitudes decreased from the easy to the hard task to the same extent in both groups. Methylphenidate enhanced the percentage of correct responses and task P3 amplitudes in both the easy and the hard task but probe P3 amplitudes were not influenced by methylphenidate. It was concluded that ADHD children do not suffer from a shortage in attentional capacity; rather, the evidence is in favor of a problem with capacity allocation. Furthermore, methylphenidate had enhancing effects on performance and ERPs, but did not improve the capacity-allocation deficit.