Negative findings about ADHD drugs downplayed by researchers on drug companies’ payroll

Thanks to unsealed documents from legal proceedings, we now know that many drug makers routinely hid negative findings about antidepressants and anti-psychotics (ranging from Paxil to Seroquel) from doctors and consumers. Now comes evidence that the researchers who conducted a long-term study on the effectiveness of drugs for attention-deficit disorder (ADHD) also sought to play down results showing that these drugs are not particularly effective over the long haul.

According to an article in The Washington Post today, researchers involved in a large federally funded study knew by 2007 that drugs like Concerta and Adderall are not effective in treating ADHD over the long term (i.e., the children in the drug group did no better than a control group who received no medication). This negative data came from a study that followed up on a well-publicized 1999 report showing that these drugs were initially effective in treating ADHD. The 2007 followup study also showed that children who took these drugs for 36 months were about an inch shorter and six pounds lighter than those who did not.

While the 2007 data were duly reported in a medical journal, a news release from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) presented the study in a far more favorable light than it deserved, playing down the negative findings about the drugs’ lack of long-term efficacy as well as their disconcerting side effects, according to The Washington Post article by Shankar Vedantam.

In reading Mr. Vedantum’s excellent story, I couldn’t help but wonder whether any of the researchers in this study, some of whom continue to minimize the drugs’ negative effects, were getting paid on the side by the companies who sell them. Sure enough, a quick glance at the latest published results of the federal study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry show that seven of the principal researchers disclosed myriad conflicts of interest. For example, Peter Jensen, the former Columbia University researcher who so fervently defends the drugs in The Post article reports receiving consulting and speaking fees from Shire (which makes Adderall), Janssen (which makes Concerta) and a host of other drug companies.

Indeed, the list of conflicts disclosed by these researchers takes up a sizable chunk of fine print at the end of the article. If you’re a subscriber to JAACAP, you can see for yourself at MTA at 8 Years: Prospective Follow-up of Children Treated for Combined-Type ADHD in a Multisite Study. Hat tip to Peggi Johnson for alerting me to The Washington Post article.

On a completely different note, I was asked to write a piece for the spring issue of the Nieman Reports about whether the blogosphere will be able to reproduce the watchdog role that newspapers have so honorably fulfilled over the last 100 years (now that many of them can no longer afford to perform that function). Here is my answer: Blogs, Watchdog Reporting and Scientific Malfeasance.

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