Efficacy and safety limitations of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder pharmacotherapy in children and adults

CNS Drugs. 2009;23 Suppl 1:21-31. doi: 10.2165/00023210-200923000-00004.


There have been major advances in the treatment and understanding of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the last decade. Among these are the availability of newer stimulant formulations, an appreciation of the combined effects of medication and behavioural therapies, and a better understanding of the neurobiology of the disorder in children (aged 6-12 years), adolescents and adults. This article focuses on the evaluation of the efficacy and safety profiles of medications used for the management of ADHD. In assessing the various medical treatments for ADHD, certain issues and analyses have become important to address. The diagnosis, characterization and quantification of ADHD symptoms are crucial to assessing treatment effectiveness. A standardized setting for measuring the severity of ADHD symptoms is the laboratory school protocol, which simulates a school environment with tightly controlled timing of measurements. This method has been adapted successfully to the adult workplace environment to help with the evaluation of adult ADHD symptoms. Statistical analyses, such as effect size and number needed to treat, may aid in the comparison and interpretation of ADHD study results. Although an objective approach to evaluating the efficacy and safety profiles of the available medications provides necessary details about the medical options, typical clinical decisions are often based on trial and error and may be individualized based on a patient's daily routine, comorbidities and risk factors. Stimulants remain the US FDA-approved medical treatment of choice for patients with ADHD and are associated with an exceptional response rate. Findings of the Multimodal Treatment of Children With ADHD study suggest that the combination of behavioural and medical therapy may benefit most patients. Nonstimulant agents, such as atomoxetine (FDA-approved), and several non-approved agents, bupropion, guanfacine and clonidine, may offer necessary alternatives to the stimulants. This is especially important for patients who have comorbidities that are contraindicated for stimulant use based on medical issues and/or risk for stimulant abuse. Typical psychiatric comorbidities in patients with ADHD include oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety, substance abuse disorder, tic disorder, and Tourette's syndrome. Although relatively safe, both stimulants and atomoxetine have class-related warnings and contraindications and are associated with adverse effects that require consideration when prescribing. Polypharmacy is a common psychiatric approach to address multiple symptoms or emergent adverse effects of necessary treatments. Future research may provide an improved understanding of polypharmacy and better characterization of the factors that influence the diagnosis and successful treatment of patients with ADHD.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / diagnosis*
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / drug therapy*
  • Attention Deficit and Disruptive Behavior Disorders / drug therapy
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants / therapeutic use*
  • Chemistry, Pharmaceutical
  • Child
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Comorbidity
  • Conduct Disorder / drug therapy
  • Drug Delivery Systems
  • Drug-Related Side Effects and Adverse Reactions
  • Humans
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / drug therapy


  • Central Nervous System Stimulants
  • Neurotransmitter Agents