The heterogeneity of causes and courses of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder


  • H-C. Steinhausen

    1. Aalborg Psychiatric Hospital, Aarhus University Hospital, Denmark
    2. Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, University of Basel, Switzerland
    3. Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Zurich, Switzerland
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  • Invited paper

Hans-Christoph Steinhausen, Aalborg Psychiatric Hospital, Aarhus University Hospital, Mølleparkvej 10, DK-9000 Aalborg.


Objective:  Attention-deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a frequent mental disorder with onset in childhood and persistence into adulthood in a sizeable number of people. Despite a rather simple clinical definition, ADHD has many facets because of frequent co-morbid disorders and varying impact on psychosocial functioning. Thus, there is considerable heterogeneity in various domains.

Method:  A review of recent research findings in: i) selected domains of aetiology reflecting the role of genes, brain structures and functioning and the interplay of causal factors and ii) clinical heterogeneity in terms of co-morbidities, gender effects, courses and outcomes.

Results:  Molecular genetic studies have identified a number of candidate genes which have a small effect on behavioural variation in ADHD. In the most recent Genome Scan Meta Analysis of seven ADHD linkage studies, genome-wide significant linkage was identified on chromosome 16. The volume of both the total brain and various regions including the prefrontal cortex, the caudate nucleus and the vermis of the cerebellum is smaller in ADHD. Functional MRI has documented a specific deficit of frontostriatal networks in ADHD. Integrative aetiological models have to take the interaction of gene and environment on various dysfunctions into account. Clinical heterogeneity results from frequent associations with various co-morbidities, the impact of the disorder on psychosocial functioning, and gender effects. Partly, these effects are evident also in the course and outcome of ADHD.

Conclusion:  ADHD is a chronic mental disorder with a complex aetiology. So far, various neurobiological factors have been identified that need to be studied further to better understand their interaction with environmental factors. The clinical presentation and the long-term course of ADHD are manifold.