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By David Kiefer, MD
Synopsis: A 15-week course in tai chi improved attention scores in healthy university students.
Source: Converse AK, et al. Tai chi training reduces self-report of inattention in healthy young adults. Front Hum Neurosci 2014;8:13. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00013.
These researchers were interested in studying mind-body techniques for their effectiveness in treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as alternative or adjunctive treatments to pharmaceuticals. The mind-body technique that was the focus of this study was tai chi, a time-honored series of slow-flowing movements incorporating a mindful attention to the body. Their background references point out the proven health benefits, including psychological components and physical outcomes, but most of these have been in middle-aged to older adults. Could these positive effects be extended to another demographic? Students aged 18-34 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus were recruited to participate in this trial; 34 were students of a tai chi class (the treatment group) and 57 were from a psychology class (the control group). There were no exclusion criteria. The treatment group attended 50-minute classes twice weekly for 15 weeks in order to learn the 24-form Yang sequence, a type of tai chi. Research participants in each group underwent 1-hour testing three times during the 15 weeks; the testing quantified balance (one-legged stand test) and cognition (the spatial working memory testing, stop signal testing, and reaction time [RT] variability in the affective go/no-go test [AGN]).
Study participants also completed four questionnaires: demographics, the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale (ASRS), experience with mind-body practices, and exercise amount. A total of 28 and 44 students completed the tai chi and control classes, respectively, which were not analyzed by intention-to-treat. The tai chi group showed improvements in the ASRS and the AGN scores from the beginning to the end (P = 0.006). These results were further analyzed; inattention (as per the ASRS) in the tai chi group was 10% less than the controls (P = 0.044), but a separate component of ADHD, hyperactivity, and impulsivity didn’t change. There was also a correlation with RT variability in the AGN test and inattention, both corroborating findings in prior research (showing that RT variability might be an indicator for ADHD) and the believability of the tai chi effect. These are interesting effects, in that this study is one of the few in healthy young adults, and the results may extrapolate to people with ADHD due to the findings in the particular subsets. Yes, there were issues with the methodology, including the lack of an intention-to-treat analysis and the lack of blinding. However, maybe this modality and other mind-body movement therapies will work their way into our treatment tool box for inattention and/or hyperactivity.