Recent directions in the treatment of ADHD have involved both a broadening of pharmacological perspectives to include nor-adrenergic as well as dopaminergic agents. A review of animal and human studies of pharmacological and therapeutic directions in ADHD suggests that the D1 receptor is a specific site for dopaminergic regulation of the PFC, but optimal levels of dopamine (DA) are required for beneficial effects on working memory. Animal and human studies indicate that the alpha-2A receptor is also important for prefrontal regulation, leaving open the question of the relative importance of these receptor sites. The therapeutic effects of ADHD medications in the prefrontal cortex have focused attention on the development of working memory capacity in ADHD.
The actions of dopaminergic vs noradrenergic agents, currently available for the treatment of ADHD have overlapping, but different actions in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and subcortical centers. While stimulants act on D1 receptors in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, they also have effects on D2 receptors in the corpus striatum and may also have serotonergic effects at orbitofrontal areas. At therapeutic levels, dopamine (DA) stimulation (through DAT transporter inhibition) decreases noise level acting on subcortical D2 receptors, while NE stimulation (through alpha-2A agonists) increases signal by acting preferentially in the PFC possibly on DAD1 receptors. On the other hand, alpha-2A noradrenergic transmission is more limited to the prefrontal cortex (PFC), and thus less likely to have motor or stereotypic side effects, while alpha-2B and alpha-2C agonists may have wider cortical effects. The data suggest a possible hierarchy of specificity in the current medications used in the treatment of ADHD, with guanfacine likely to be most specific for the treatment of prefrontal attentional and working memory deficits. Stimulants may have broader effects on both vigilance and motor impulsivity, depending on dose levels, while atomoxetine may have effects on attention, anxiety, social affect, and sedation via noradrenergic transmission.
Tests of the hypothesis
At a theoretical level, the advent of possible specific alpha-2A noradrenergic therapies has posed the question of the role of working memory in ADHD. Head to head comparisons of stimulant and noradrenergic alpha-2A, alpha-2B and alpha-2C agonists, utilizing vigilance and affective measures should help to clarify pharmacological and therapeutic differences.