Ever evolving attention on attention

Today, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most commonly diagnosed childhood conditions. Awareness of the behaviors associated with the disorder extends back two centuries, but only recently have researchers gained a deeper understanding of ADHD’s complexity and scope.

Medical research described symptoms characteristic of ADHD as early as 1798. But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that an emphasis on studying the disorder began to take shape. The modern conception of ADHD was first described by George Still in “The Goulstonian lectures on some abnormal psychical conditions in children,” published in 1902 in The Lancet (1: 1008-12; 1163-8).

Research continued, and in the 1920s and 30s, ADHD was attributed to brain damage caused by encephalitis. In the 1960s, a discovery concluded that this condition could exist without brain injury. As the understanding changed, so did the terminology. Between 1980 and 1987, the condition was officially known as attention deficit disorder (ADD), while before that it was known as hyperkinetic reaction of childhood.  

Although ADHD is now widely accepted, it took scientists and medical professionals years to propagate the diagnosis into the mainstream.

As pediatrician and author Perri Klass wrote in the New York Times in 2011: “As recently as 2002, an international group of leading neuroscientists found it necessary to publish a statement arguing passionately that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was a real condition.”

Given the activity resulting from that struggle,  we see ADHD research flourishing in the 2000s. For example, a simple search in Web of Science for related research on ADHD reveals 24,820 articles. Of that research, 70% was published since 2008. Expanding our search field for the topic “attention deficit” doubles our results to 48,266 articles, 60% of them published since 2008.

As researchers continue to debate the attributes of ADHD, analysis of citation patterns indicates a reliance on older works. As noted above, the observations collected in Still’s “Goulstonian lectures on some abnormal psychical conditions in children” are considered the modern basis of ADHD, but they didn’t become popular until the late 1970s. From there however, through cited works, they continue to influence ADHD research today.

adhd graph Citation analysis of “The Goulstonian lectures on some abnormal psychical conditions in children,” published in 1902 (Lancet, 1: 1008-12; 1163-8).

As research continues to clarify the underlying causes of the disorder and to make treatments more effective, we can expect to see the trend of citing older research continue. Present discoveries owe their existence to past developments and theories. Some archives deliver data that proves fundamental to new directions; others serve to caution those who would pursue an already-disproved theory. All provide essential building blocks of data for today’s researchers, students and faculty.

When you access the backfiles of Web of Science you’ll get a centralized source to make historical connections accessible and usable for your research.