Comorbid anxiety and irritability symptoms and their association with cognitive functioning in children with ADHD

Abstract

Anxiety and irritability symptoms frequently co-occur in children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This study aims to investigate whether irritability and anxiety are uniquely associated with performance on measures of cognitive functioning in children with ADHD and whether these associations hold when accounting for confounding variables. Baseline data was used from a randomised controlled trial of cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety in children with ADHD (N = 219, 8–13 years). Anxiety was assessed using the child- and parent-reported Spence Children’s Anxiety Scale, while irritability was assessed using the parent-reported Affective Reactivity Index. Children completed the National Institutes of Health Toolbox - Cognition Battery. Higher symptoms of anxiety were uniquely associated with performance on the Dimensional Card Change Sort Test (β = −2.75, confidence interval (CI) [−4.97, −.52], p = .02) and the List Sort Working Memory Test (β = −2.57, CI [−4.43, −.70], p = .01), while higher symptoms of irritability were negatively associated with Picture Vocabulary Test (β = −2.00, CI [−3.83, −.16], p = .03). These associations did not survive correction for multiple comparisons. There was little evidence of an association between anxiety or irritability symptoms and cognitive functioning. Frequent co-occurrence of anxiety and irritability suggests clinicians working with children with ADHD should assess co-morbid symptom profiles to inform the provision of optimum care.

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Acknowledgements

This project has been funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) of Australia (1106427) and the Sidney Myer Fund and Myer Foundation. ES is funded by an NHMRC Career Development Fellowship (1110688: 2016–21) and a veski Inspiring Women’s Fellowship. The MCRI is supported by the Victorian Government’s Operational Infrastructure Support Program. We would like to thanks all parents and children for their participation in this study.

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Correspondence to Nicola Read.

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Jane McGillivray currently recieves funding from the Moose Foundation, Victoria Department of Education and Training, the Wenig Family and Grace & Emilio Foundation, to conduct research in the field of neurodevelopmental disorders and inclusion, and from the Ferrero Group Australia as part of its Kinder + Sport pillar of Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives to promote active lifestyles among young people. All remaining authors have declared no conflict of interest.

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This study has ethical approval from the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne Human Research Ethics Committee (35164) and Deakin University Human Research Ethics Committee (2016–387).

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Read, N., Mulraney, M., McGillivray, J. et al. Comorbid anxiety and irritability symptoms and their association with cognitive functioning in children with ADHD. J Abnorm Child Psychol 48, 1035–1046 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-020-00658-z

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Keywords

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Irritability
  • Cognitive function