Background: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a psychiatric diagnosis increasingly used in adults. The recommended first-line pharmacological treatment is central nervous system (CNS) stimulants, such as methylphenidate, but uncertainty remains about its benefits and harms.
Objectives: To assess the beneficial and harmful effects of extended-release formulations of methylphenidate in adults diagnosed with ADHD.
Search methods: We searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, nine other databases and four clinical trial registries up to February 2021. We searched 12 drug regulatory databases for clinical trial data up to 13 May 2020. In addition, we cross-referenced all available trial identifiers, handsearched reference lists, searched pharmaceutical company databases, and contacted trial authors.
Selection criteria: Randomised, double-blind, parallel-group trials comparing extended-release methylphenidate formulations at any dose versus placebo and other ADHD medications in adults diagnosed with ADHD.
Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently extracted data. We assessed dichotomous outcomes as risk ratios (RRs), and rating scales and continuous outcomes as mean differences (MDs) or standardised mean differences (SMDs). We used the Cochrane risk of bias tool to assess risks of bias, and GRADE to assess the certainty of the evidence. We meta-analysed the data using a random-effects model. We assessed three design characteristics that may impair the trial results' 'generalisability'; exclusion of participants with psychiatric comorbidity; responder selection based on previous experience with CNS stimulants; and risk of withdrawal effects. Our prespecified primary outcomes were functional outcomes, self-rated ADHD symptoms, and serious adverse events. Our secondary outcomes included quality of life, ADHD symptoms rated by investigators and by peers such as family members, cardiovascular variables, severe psychiatric adverse events, and other adverse events.
Main results: We included 24 trials (5066 participants), of which 21 reported outcome data for this review. We also identified one ongoing study. We included documents from six drug regulatory agencies covering eight trials. Twenty-one trials had an outpatient setting and three were conducted in prisons. They were primarily conducted in North America and Europe. The median participant age was 36 years. Twelve trials (76% of participants) were industry-sponsored, four (14% of participants) were publicly funded with industry involvement, seven (10% of participants) were publicly funded, and one had unclear funding. The median trial duration was eight weeks. One trial was rated at overall unclear risk of bias and 20 trials were rated at overall high risk of bias, primarily due to unclear blinding of participants and investigators, attrition bias, and selective outcome reporting. All trials were impaired in at least one of the three design characteristics related to 'generalisability'; for example, they excluded participants with psychiatric comorbidity such as depression or anxiety, or included participants only with a previous positive response to methylphenidate, or similar drugs. This may limit the trials' usefulness for clinical practice, as they may overestimate the benefits and underestimate the harms. Extended-release methylphenidate versus placebo (up to 26 weeks) For the primary outcomes, we found very low-certainty evidence that methylphenidate had no effect on 'days missed at work' at 13-week follow-up (mean difference (MD) -0.15 days, 95% confidence interval (CI) -2.11 to 1.81; 1 trial, 409 participants) or serious adverse events (risk ratio (RR) 1.43, CI 95% CI 0.85 to 2.43; 14 trials, 4078 participants), whereas methylphenidate improved self-rated ADHD symptoms (small-to-moderate effect; SMD -0.37, 95% CI -0.43 to -0.30; 16 trials, 3799 participants). For secondary outcomes, we found very low-certainty evidence that methylphenidate improved self-rated quality of life (small effect; SMD -0.15, 95% CI -0.25 to -0.05; 6 trials, 1888 participants), investigator-rated ADHD symptoms (small-to-moderate effect; SMD -0.42, 95% CI -0.49 to -0.36; 18 trials, 4183 participants), ADHD symptoms rated by peers such as family members (small-to-moderate effect; SMD -0.31, 95% CI -0.48 to -0.14; 3 trials, 1005 participants), and increased the risk of experiencing any adverse event (RR 1.27, 95% CI 1.19 to 1.37; 14 trials, 4214 participants). We rated the certainty of the evidence as 'very low' for all outcomes, primarily due to high risk of bias and 'indirectness of the evidence'. One trial (419 participants) had follow-up at 52 weeks and two trials (314 participants) included active comparators, hence long-term and comparative evidence is limited.
Authors' conclusions: We found very low-certainty evidence that extended-release methylphenidate compared to placebo improved ADHD symptoms (small-to-moderate effects) measured on rating scales reported by participants, investigators, and peers such as family members. Methylphenidate had no effect on 'days missed at work' or serious adverse events, the effect on quality of life was small, and it increased the risk of several adverse effects. We rated the certainty of the evidence as 'very low' for all outcomes, due to high risk of bias, short trial durations, and limitations to the generalisability of the results. The benefits and harms of extended-release methylphenidate therefore remain uncertain.
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