Early Signs That May Help Predict ADHD Risk

Information available at birth may help to identify children with higher likelihood of developing ADHD, according to new research from RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study is an ongoing study of children in the US, born between 2005 and 2009. Children were enrolled to the study at age 9-10 and their parents were asked about aspects of the pregnancy and birth, as well as their child’s current mental health.

The RCSI researchers identified 40 factors that would typically be known by birth, including the sex of the baby, the age of the parents, any complications during the pregnancy or delivery, and the baby’s exposure in the womb to factors such as cigarette smoke. Using machine learning and statistical techniques, the researchers found that 17 of the 40 factors were particularly good at predicting the number of ADHD symptoms in childhood.

Co-lead researcher, Dr Niamh Dooley says: “We know that certain events during our time in the womb can have long-lasting consequences for our health. But not many studies have tried to quantify just how useful prenatal information could be to predicting childhood ADHD symptoms. We focused on readily available information about pregnancies and births, the kind that would be in antenatal records. This ensures our results can be compared to other studies using medical records and that they are relevant to public health.

“The other key element of this study was acknowledging the contribution of social, economic, and demographic factors to maternal and child health. For instance, prenatal information did not predict ADHD symptoms equally across the sexes, family income brackets, or racial/ethnic groups,” Dr Dooley said.

Professor Mary Cannon, study co-lead, commented: “While we only explained up to 10% of the variation in childhood ADHD symptoms, this was with information typically available at birth. We cannot predict who will develop ADHD in childhood with birth information alone, but it may help identify which children are most in need of supports, particularly when combined with other factors like genetics or family history and the early life environment.

Factors that stood out in the study as being useful in predicting ADHD symptoms in childhood included being male, as well as exposure to factors when in the womb such as cigarette smoke, recreational drugs, and the mother having urinary tract infections or low levels of iron.


Niamh Dooley, Colm Healy, David Cotter, Mary Clarke, Mary Cannon. Predicting childhood ADHD-linked symptoms from prenatal and perinatal data in the ABCD cohort. Development and Psychopathology, 2023; 1 DOI: 10.1017/S0954579423000238

RCSI. “Early signs that may help predict ADHD risk.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 April 2023. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/04/230418101427.htm>.

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