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Can EEG Diagnose ADHD?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on July 02, 2020

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that affects the brain. There’s no simple test to diagnose ADHD. A doctor usually will diagnose it if a child shows certain signs of inattention in multiple settings for at least 6 months and if the parents or child say it's had a negative effect on the child's life.

They might be easily distracted, have trouble waiting their turn, or staying in their seat.

Research shows that the brains of people with ADHD are different than the ones of those without. That’s why some doctors use a physical test to look for changes in brain patterns.

The FDA approved the use of electroencephalogram (EEG) to diagnose ADHD in 2013. Called the Neuropsychiatric EEG-Based Assessment Aid (NEBA) System, this noninvasive scan measures slow brain waves called theta waves and fast brain waves called beta waves.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that affects the brain. There’s no simple test to diagnose ADHD. A doctor usually will diagnose it if a child shows certain signs of inattention in multiple settings for at least 6 months and if the parents or child say it's had a negative effect on the child's life.

They might be easily distracted, have trouble waiting their turn, or staying in their seat.

Research shows that the brains of people with ADHD are different than the ones of those without. That’s why some doctors use a physical test to look for changes in brain patterns.

The FDA approved the use of electroencephalogram (EEG) to diagnose ADHD in 2013. Called the Neuropsychiatric EEG-Based Assessment Aid (NEBA) System, this noninvasive scan measures slow brain waves called theta waves and fast brain waves called beta waves.

What Is an EEG?

An EEG is a tool used to diagnose epilepsy and other disorders that affect the brain. Doctors may also use it to find a brain tumor, sleep disorders, or a stroke.

A technician places small discs called electrodes on the scalp. They may use a special cap instead. The electrodes connect with wires to a machine that amplifies brain waves and records them on a computer.

It's safe and painless.

How NEBA Works to Diagnose ADHD

The test records the number of slow and fast brain waves given off and calculates the ratio between the two. Researchers have long believed that the ratio is higher in people with ADHD. Other studies, however, have found that the comparison isn’t a reliable way to diagnose the disorder.

NEBA isn't supposed to be the only way that doctors diagnose ADHD. It’s intended to be part of a doctor’s complete exam.

NEBA's FDA approval is only to diagnose children and teens ages 6-17 years old.

What the Research Says

In one study of more than 200 people, when doctors used NEBA along with normal ADHD screening questions and exams, the accuracy of diagnosis jumped from 61% to 88%. The test was particularly helpful in diagnosing ADHD apart from other conditions with similar symptoms.

Using EEG to diagnose, however, remains controversial. Some scientists argue that there isn’t enough research to show that results of the test can diagnose or rule out ADHD. Because many things can impact brain waves -- such as drowsiness -- some researchers say that the results are not reliable.

If your doctor suggests an EEG to see if your child has ADHD, discuss the pros and cons of using it as a diagnosis tool. Make sure it is part of a complete exam. They should gather information from parents, teachers, and caregivers to make a diagnosis.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: “ADHD & the Brain.”

CDC: “Symptoms and Diagnosis of ADHD.”

Boston Children’s Hospital: “Brain ‘connectome’ on EEG could help diagnose attentional disorders.”

Medscape: “What is the Neuropsychiatric EEG-Based Assessment Aid (NEBA) System and how is it used in the diagnosis of pediatric attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?”

Current Psychiatry Reports: “Use of EEG to Diagnose ADHD.”

Mayo Clinic: “EEG (electroencephalogram).”

FDA: “De novo classification request for neuropsychiatric EEG-based assessment aid for ADHD (NEBA) system.”

Journal of Attention Disorders: “A decade of EEG Theta/Beta Ratio Research in ADHD: a meta-analysis.”

Brain and Behavior: “Integration of an EEG biomarker with a clinician's ADHD evaluation.”

Medscape: “Can ADHD Really Be Diagnosed by EEG?”

Pediatrics: “ADHD: Clinical Practice Guideline for the Diagnosis, Evaluation, and Treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Children and Adolescents.”

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