Dr. Shaw studies attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), one of the most common and heritable childhood mental health problems. The overarching goal of his research is to better understand the clinical course of ADHD in order to improve treatment for the disorder. To accomplish this goal, he uses tools from neuroscience, basic behavioral science and social science.
ADHD is a significant and highly prevalent problem of childhood, affecting 5 to 10 percent of children. Dr. Shaw's research addresses some of the most striking, yet least understood aspects of the disorder, such as the highly-variable adult outcome of ADHD. While about a quarter of children with ADHD will have the full disorder in adulthood, others will experience complete remission. By following a large group of children with ADHD as they grow up, Dr. Shaw's group aims to define the environmental, neural and genetic factors that influence the disorder's clinical course. This approach has already given insights into differences in brain development in ADHD, suggesting, for example, that in childhood there may be a delay in cortical maturation. Building on this work, and in collaboration with colleagues from the National Institutes of Mental Health, Dr. Shaw will examine how differing patterns of brain development in adolescence and adulthood drive different clinical outcomes.
ADHD is also a highly heritable disorder, with an estimated 70 percent of the affected phenotype explained by genetic factors. Genomics, therefore, is at the core of understanding the disorder. While some important advances have been made in defining the genes at play in ADHD, much remains to be elucidated. Dr Shaw's group aims to divide the disorder into biologically meaningful subtypes based on abnormalities in brain development and behavior. These subtypes may improve researchers' potential to discover novel ADHD genes.
According to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year in the United States, about one child out of every twenty is prescribed psychostimulants as treatment for ADHD. At the same time, there has been little research into the effects of these drugs on the developing human brain, and almost none into the neural effects of behavioral treatments to combat the disorder. Understanding the effects of standard care delivered in the community can inform the design of future trials.
While research has demonstrated genetic contributions to ADHD, the disorder is embedded in an array of social contexts that include the family, schools and the larger community. The influence of these environmental variables on the course of the disorder must be considered. Most research to date has focused on relatively stable aspects of the social environment, such as socio-economic class. Dr. Shaw's group will expand on this work by examining more dynamic aspects of a child's social surroundings, such as changes in the child's social network or family environment, that may prove to be powerful determinants of the disorder's clinical course.
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Last Reviewed: November 17, 2014