Conference Coverage

Treating comorbid ADHD-SUD presents challenges

Consider medications that might improve both conditions



– Research suggests that as many as 23% of patients with substance use disorder (SUD) also have ADHD, adding an extra layer of complexity to a difficult-to-treat condition. What to do?

“Treating the ADHD can be useful in reducing the severity of symptoms without worsening the substance use disorder. It shouldn’t be avoided,” said psychiatrist Larissa J. Mooney, MD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, in a presentation at the annual Psych Congress.

When ADHD is on board, “it’s a more complicated and challenging clinical course,” Dr. Mooney said. The duo of disorders is linked to higher rates of polysubstance abuse and other psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress, and antisocial/borderline conditions (Eur Addict Res. 2018;24[1]:43-51).

“These individuals typically have more difficulty with [drug] abstinence, more health consequences, and reduced quality of life, and social and professional consequences,” she said. “Some studies have suggested that they may not respond to lower doses of medication for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and may require doses in the higher range.”

Research has hinted that several drugs that might prove helpful in these patients by improving both conditions, Dr. Mooney said. These include up to 180 mg/day of methylphenidate (Ritalin), 60- and 80-mg doses of mixed amphetamine salts/extended release, atomoxetine (Strattera), and bupropion.

In regard to bupropion, she said, “I find it to be a good choice in my substance use disorder patients for their depression and concentration problems. I have a greater number of individuals at 450 milligrams per day and the XL formulation.”

Early research has suggested that guanfacine XR (Intuniv), which is used to treat children with ADHD, also might be helpful in adults, including those with SUD. “We need more research to show if this is helpful,” she said. “It’s a reasonable choice in terms of weighing pros and cons, because it’s not [a controlled substance].”

Still, some of those medications are stimulants, Dr. Mooney said, and their use in patients with SUD is controversial. There are concerns about misuse and diversion.

“We want to have some flexibility,” she said, but it’s important to think about risks and priorities. In certain cases, ADHD may be a secondary concern.

“Some patients have a severe substance use disorder that keeps landing them in the emergency room or causing them to be hospitalized,” she said. “I’m more worried about that than the impairment function from ADHD.”

If you do consider stimulants, she said, longer-acting formulations can be less risky because there’s less potential for diversion. “Also, think about their treatment plan: Is their functioning improving? Are they or showing up for appointments? These are factors that will say: ‘Oh, I’m on the right path with this medication.’ ”

Behavioral treatment also can be helpful in these patients, she said, although “some may not be willing or motivated to put in the time that it takes to do the behavioral work.”

Dr. Mooney disclosed an advisory board relationship with Alkermes and grant/research support from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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