Numerous small clinical trials have been carried out to study the behaviourally defined efficacy and safety of short-acting methylphenidate compared with placebo for attention-deficit disorder (ADD) in individuals aged 18 years and less. However, no meta-analyses that carefully examined these questions have been done. We reviewed the behavioural evidence from all the randomized controlled trials that compared methylphenidate and placebo, and completed a meta-analysis.
We searched several electronic sources for articles published between 1981 and 1999: MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsychINFO, ERIC, CINAHL, HEALTHSTAR, Biological Abstracts, Current Contents and Dissertation Abstracts. The Cochrane Library Trials Registry and Current Controlled Trials were also consulted. A study was considered eligible for inclusion if it entailed the following: a placebo-controlled randomized trial that involved short-acting methylphenidate and participants aged 18 years or less at the start of the trial who had received any primary diagnosis of ADD that was made in a systematic and reproducible way.
We included 62 randomized trials that involved a total of 2897 participants with a primary diagnosis of ADD (e.g., with or without hyperactivity). The median age of trial participants was 8.7 years, and the median "percent male" composition of trials was 88.1%. Most studies used a crossover design. Using the scores from 2 separate indices, this collection of trials exhibited low quality. Interventions lasted, on average, 3 weeks, with no trial lasting longer than 28 weeks. Each primary outcome (hyperactivity index) demonstrated a significant effect of methylphenidate (effect size reported by teacher 0.78, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.64-0.91; effect size reported by parent 0.54, 95% CI 0.40-0.67). However, these apparent beneficial effects are tempered by a strong indication of publication bias and the lack of robustness of the findings, especially those involving core ADD features. Methylphenidate also has an adverse event profile that requires consideration. For example, clinicians only need to treat 4 children to identify an episode of decreased appetite.
Short-acting methylphenidate has a statistically significant clinical effect in the short-term treatment of individuals with a diagnosis of ADD aged 18 years and less. However, the extension of this placebo-controlled effect beyond 4 weeks of treatment has not been demonstrated. Exact knowledge of the extent and definition of the short-term behavioural usefulness of methylphenidate is questioned.
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