Just two years in, scientific discoveries put OHSU Center for ADHD Research on the map

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, as of 2016, an estimated 6.1 million U.S.-based children ages 2 to 17 have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. Children with ADHD have problems that often persist into adulthood, with complicating depression, anxiety disorders, and addiction, leading to an estimated 9 million affected adults. ADHD, like other mental disorders, also raises the risk of physical illnesses and of premature death. To address this major health condition, in 2019 OHSU established the Center for ADHD Research under the leadership of Joel Nigg, Ph.D.,  professor of psychiatry and a leading ADHD scientist. The center, through its team of associated scientists, has distinguished itself nationally in multiple ways–and with new exciting scientific leads emerging.

This progress inspired the founding donors to make a full, generous contribution of $12.5 million at the end of 2021, directed to the Center’s work by Steven and Patricia Sharp through their Abracadabra Foundation. “ADHD is the gateway to so many mental health conditions. We have a great opportunity to now take a big step forward with research that will make a critical difference in how we understand and address mental health,” said Steve and Pat Sharp.

The prior support of the Sharps was instrumental in enabling the Center’s scientists to explore novel areas that have led to additional federal funding opportunities and helped solidify OHSU’s reputation as a national leader in unlocking the mysteries of this condition. The new infusion will dramatically accelerate the growth and effectiveness of the unique research being done.

Predicting ADHD in pregnancy

In a pilot study of pregnant mothers whose children were expected to be at risk, OHSU researchers explored a new way of predicting ADHD. They created a blood measure for cytokines (related to inflammation) in pregnancy that predicted ADHD symptoms in offspring five years later. From that initial finding, work on early detection has accelerated.

Today, the Center for ADHD Research is playing a pioneering role in discovering very early life predictors of ADHD and identifying potential early treatment targets. The team is now studying this finding in 270 pregnant individuals and their offspring. In addition, OHSU is one of the founding sites of a nationwide study of 7,500 pregnant individuals and offspring to learn about neurodevelopment and how it predicts child health and mental health from before birth. The researchers are eager to find out if they can discover new, safe, low-cost prevention for children suffering from disrupted brain development due to excess inflammation and thus reduce risks of ADHD and other mental health and neurodevelopmental conditions.

Understanding gene regulation through the study of epigenetics

Epigenetics is crucial to gene regulation, but until very recently, the connection of this field to ADHD was almost non-existent. Researchers at the Center were among the first in the world to collect data and invest in studies of peripheral DNA tests of epigenetics. OHSU published the first large study of the epigenetics of ADHD and is now spearheading an international consortium that will involve tens of thousands of children designed to seek new biomarkers that might lead to new clinical diagnostics.

Confirming the link between dietary micronutrients and ADHD

OHSU’s longstanding interest in dietary factors of this disease has also borne fruit; thanks to a new faculty hire, Jeni Johnstone, and supported by philanthropic funds, the Center completed the first North American study of high-dose vitamin and mineral supplements with striking results that will influence clinical care for victims. Over 50 percent of affected children had notable clinical improvement, versus 18 percent on placebo. This approach may be able to influence clinical care in the near future.

Refining clinical phenotype

The team at the Center for ADHD Research has developed novel evidence there is an identifiable subgroup of children who meet criteria for ADHD but are distinguished by a particular clinical profile.  This kind of discovery should help to improve accuracy of diagnosis and treatment, save costs, and improve outcomes.

Planting the seeds to grow this promising area of research

Philanthropic gifts like those from the Sharp family play a key role in seeding innovative, early-stage research and proofs of concept that can lead to additional funding and validation of breakthroughs in our understanding of ADHD. In fact, philanthropic funds that are used to launch novel areas of work typically have resulted in the ability to attract federal investment and other investigators, extending the research and funding five times on average.

The new philanthropic seed money will allow the OHSU Center for ADHD Research to build on this very promising research, hire new experts and attract larger-scale partners. For the millions of children and adults suffering from ADHD, this can mean the difference between experiencing better quality outcomes or living with the debilitating effects of ADHD and other forms of mental illness.