Objective: The aim of this follow-up study was to investigate the course of performance in attentional tasks in children with ADHD and normal controls in late childhood and preadolescence over short periods of time. The development of two dimensions of attention was compared: alertness/arousal and inhibitory control.
Method: Children with ADHD (N = 28) and normal controls (N = 25) were examined at three times: at baseline (age mean = 10.8 years, SD = 1.5), after one year (age mean = 12.0 years, SD = 1.6), and after 2.6 years (age mean = 13.3 years, SD = 1.6). They performed two tasks of a computerized battery for attentional performance: Alertness – a test of simple reaction time to visual stimuli contrasting a condition with and without auditory warning signal, and Incompatibility – a test of spatial interference/inhibitory control. Clinical diagnosis according to DSM-III-R criteria was established at time 1 and time 3 by structured diagnostic interviews.
Results: In the Alertness task significant group differences regarding increased reaction time variability in ADHD, but not for reaction time itself, were found at time 1 and more pronounced at time 2. At time 3 group differences had disappeared. In the Incompatibility task group differences in number of errors were not observed at time 1, whereas children with ADHD made significantly more errors at time 2 and less pronounced at time 3. The degree of clinical symptom remission after 2.6 years was not related to changes in neuropsychological performance.
Conclusion: When measuring attentional functions, the selection of an appropriate time window seems to be essential for the detection of group differences between ADHD children and controls, because group differences are most pronounced before adolescence. The different developmental course of selective components of attention should be taken into account.