Developmental phenotypes and causal pathways in attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder: potential targets for early intervention?


  • Edmund J.S. Sonuga-Barke,

    1. Developmental Brain-Behaviour Laboratory, University of Southampton, UK
    2. Department of Experimental Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Belgium
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  • Jeffrey M. Halperin

    1. Department of Psychology, Queens College, City University of New York, USA
    2. Department of Psychiatry, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, USA
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  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.


Early intervention approaches have rarely been implemented for the prevention of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In this paper we explore whether such an approach may represent an important new direction for therapeutic innovation. We propose that such an approach is most likely to be of value when grounded in and informed by developmental models of the dynamic, complex and heterogeneous nature of the condition. First, we set out a rationale for early intervention grounded in the science of ADHD viewed through developmental models. Second, we re-examine the concept of disorder-onset from the perspective of developmental trajectories and phenotypes. Third, we examine potential causal pathways to ADHD with regard to originating risk, pathophysiological mediators, environmental moderators and developmental continuities. Finally, we explore the potential value of strategies for identifying young children at risk for ADHD, and implementing interventions in ways that can target these underlying pathogenic processes. The utility of such an approach represents an important area for future research but still requires ‘proof of concept’. Therefore prior to widespread clinical implementation, far greater knowledge is required of (i) developmental pathways into ADHD, (ii) the value of identifying neuropsychological mediators of these pathways, and (iii) the extent to which targeting mediating mechanisms will improve treatment outcomes for children with ADHD.