Can genetic testing help me find the right ADHD medication?

By Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH

Question:

I’ve heard that genetic testing can tell a person which ADHD medication will work best for them and have the fewest side effects. Is that true?

Answer:

This is a great question and one that I get asked fairly regularly in my practice. The short answer is that this research is still in its early stages.

There isn’t enough evidence yet that genetic testing helps find the right ADHD medication for a child or an adult. Genes may play a role in how a person responds to medication. But it’s not the only factor. Things like age, diet, and other medical conditions can play a role too.

Several companies now offer genetic testing to try to help with ADHD medication. Their goal is to help the many kids and adults with ADHD who have to try several doses and types of medication to find the right fit. 

It would be great if testing could decrease the need to do things by trial and error. But it’s still too early to know if these tests make accurate predictions. 

There are some genetic tests on the market that claim to be able to tell which ADHD medication is best for a person. But these reports are often based on data from animal studies or small human studies. 

That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines for treating kids with ADHD does not recommend using these tests for kids. The tests aren’t standard practice for treating adults with ADHD either. 

These tests are also very expensive and typically are not covered by insurance.

More on genes and medication

Genes are like instructions for how your body should make proteins and other molecules. But genes vary from person to person. And those differences may help explain why two people may respond to the same medication in different ways.

But other factors can also play a role. These include a person’s age, sex, diet, other medical conditions, and other medications that person might take. Plus, genes may play more or less of a role, depending on the person and the drug. It’s complicated.

Researchers have been looking for some time at how genes impact the way medication works in the body. This area of science is called pharmacogenetics. Based on the research, genetic testing is common with certain drugs for cancer and other conditions.

How to help

If you or your child are having a hard time finding the right medication, talk to your health care provider. It may be time to see a specialist. 

Some providers may use genetic tests for people who are having an especially tough time finding the right fit. But more research is needed before these tests become a routine part of clinical care for kids or adults with ADHD.

Learn how ADHD medication works in the brain and how to tell if ADHD medication needs adjusting.

This article was updated in August 2021. Understood is not affiliated with any pharmaceutical company.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.