Diagnostic controversies in adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

Am J Psychiatry. 2004 Nov;161(11):1948-56. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.161.11.1948.


Objective: While it is increasingly recognized that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) persists into adulthood, there is no consensus on diagnostic criteria for adult ADHD. In this article the authors describe and contrast competing approaches for diagnosis of adult ADHD used in clinical and research practice.

Method: The authors review the Wender Utah criteria, DSM criteria, and laboratory assessment strategies for adult ADHD. Advantages and disadvantages of each approach are described, and recommendations are made as a basis for clinical assessment and future research.

Results: Both the Wender Utah criteria and DSM-based approaches identify significantly impaired ADHD adults with neurocognitive, biological, and treatment response patterns similar to pediatric ADHD patients. The Wender Utah criteria established the need for retrospective childhood diagnosis and recognize developmental differences in adult symptom expression. The Wender Utah criteria fail to identify patients with predominantly inattentive symptoms, exclude some patients with significant comorbid psychopathology, and diverge significantly from the DSM conception of ADHD. The DSM criteria have never been validated in adults, do not include developmentally appropriate symptoms and thresholds for adults, and fail to identify some significantly impaired adults who are likely to benefit from treatment. There are insufficient scientific data to justify use of laboratory assessment measures, including neuropsychological tests and brain imaging, in diagnosing adult ADHD.

Conclusions: Adult ADHD remains a clinical diagnosis. Clinicians should be flexible in application of the current ADHD criteria to adults. Additional research is required to validate adult diagnostic criteria.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / diagnosis*
  • Child
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  • Electroencephalography
  • Humans
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales / statistics & numerical data
  • Psychometrics
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed, Single-Photon