If you pay attention to media coverage of ADHD, you might have noticed an explosion of stories about ADHD and sleep this week. Here’s a sampling:

So, what is this “study” and why is it getting so much attention?

After all, there are interesting studies on ADHD published in scientific journals literally every day, the vast majority of which never get any media coverage. This one must be quite something.

Asleep

The Daily Mail’s fact-checking department on a typical workday

If you do a little digging (some of these articles don’t even cite their sources), you’ll find that all these pieces are based on a press release from the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, which just held its annual conference.

At the conference, one group of researchers made a presentation that, according to the press release, was “a pulling together of the latest research.” In other words, the first thing to note here is that the “new study” all the news articles are talking about isn’t actually a new study with new results that’s being published in a scientific journal – it’s a “theory” about previous research that’s being presented at a conference.

So what is this new theory?

According to Sandra Kooij, who made the presentation: “pulling all the work together leads us to say that, based on existing evidence, it looks very much like ADHD and circadian problems are intertwined in the majority of patients.”

Notice all the hedge words here. It looks like ADHD and circadian problems are intertwined in the majority of patients. Translation: there’s something going on with ADHD and sleep, but we don’t know what.

Now, I happen to think this is an interesting topic. The research really does suggest that there’s some kind of link between ADHD and sleep problems, especially delayed circadian rhythm. In fact, I’ve blogged about ADHD and circadian rhythm on here before.

But pointing this link out isn’t anything new, and it’s certainly not the same as saying ADHD is caused by a lack of sleep.

Which raises the question: how did we get from a perfectly reasonable review of previously published studies on ADHD to news articles declaring that sleep is the “key” to ADHD? I think there are two steps along the way.

The first is the original press release. Scientists understandably want to pump up their findings when talking to journalists and try to get as much publicity as possible, but sometimes they go too far.

For example, in the press release, Kooij is quoted as saying: “If you review the evidence, it looks more and more like ADHD and sleeplessness are 2 sides of the same physiological and mental coin.”

This is a statement that is scientifically meaningless. Note that Kooij isn’t actually saying ADHD and sleeplessness are the same thing – which would be a radical scientific conclusion to make. She’s just saying they’re “two sides of the same coin,” and leaving it up to journalists to interpret that statement.

And, sure enough, this catchy but scientifically empty phrase comes up in pretty much every article you’ll read about this research.

To make things worse, we pretty much have to take everything the press release says at face value because the actual work it’s based on was a conference presentation and apparently isn’t even publicly available right now. And this probably doesn’t even strike many science journalists as a problem because they’re so used to not even glancing at the research they write about.

Which leads us to the second thing that went wrong in how this research was reported. Journalists took a vague press release and ran with it. So a press release that declares “ADHD may in fact be a problem associated with lack of regular circadian sleep” becomes a headline asking: “does sleep deprivation cause ADHD?”

In summary, here’s how we got from interesting scientific research to wildly inaccurate tabloid article:

  1. Group of researchers suggest interesting but ambiguous link between ADHD and disrupted circadian rhythm
  2. Lead research comments to media that ADHD and poor sleep are “two sides of the same coin.”
  3. Media concludes that ADHD is caused by lack of sleep

And here’s the final result, quoted from the Daily Mail:

ADHD, the disorder that affects children’s ability to concentrate and results in disruptive behavior, might simply be the result of them not getting enough sleep, leading scientists believe.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is exacerbated by not getting to sleep early and using mobiles or tablets before bed, they say.

The theory, being proposed at a major scientific conference this weekend, will fuel the belief that ADHD is caused – or at least aggravated – by poor parenting.

No, Daily Mail. Just, no. ADHD doesn’t only affect children, “leading scientists” do not believe that that ADHD is just caused by not getting enough sleep, and you are the ones fueling the belief that ADHD is caused by “poor parenting.”

Everyone involved in publicizing this study, from the people who constructed the original press release, to the journalists who decided to trade scientific accuracy for clicks, should think about what role they played in taking a genuinely interesting piece of psychology research that could’ve been used to help people with ADHD and using it to spread stigma and hurt people with ADHD instead.

Image: Flickr/Bonbon