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Researching a Link
Between Synthetic Oxytocin & ADHD

Written by Alexis Castorina

More children are being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) than ever before. In fact, recent studies report that one in every 10 children between the ages of 4 and 17 has ADHD, and that trend is increasing annually at a rate of 5.5 percent. Unfortunately, the cause remains unknown. But, NCU alumna Dr. Lisa Kurth and a team of researchers are exploring some interesting correlations.

Lisa Kurth (Ph.D., Psychology / Health Psychology And Behavioral Medicine, 2008)

Dr. Kurth has worked in the field of psychology and mental health as a provider for more than 30 years. She’s currently the clinical director of the Alpine Behavior Therapy Clinic, a private practice in Fort Collins, Colo., that specializes in the assessment and treatment of ADHD in children and adults.

It was through conversations with mothers of the children being brought in for ADHD and other mental health and behavioral evaluations and treatments at her practice that inspired her research.

“I would interview mothers during the initial intake of their children who presented with various behavioral disorders. As a part of that process, I would ask about the developmental history of the child. These mothers would independently volunteer their stories of a difficult labor and delivery. Many of them reported they were given Synthetic Oxytocin during labor,” explained Kurth.

Synthetic Oxytocin, also known by the brand names Pitocin or Syntocinon, is a drug used to induce labor in women. The drug is normally administered through an IV, and the dosage can be adjusted based on the needs of the mother during labor. We all have natural oxytocin hormones in our bodies, but when a woman is in labor, the brain creates more of the oxytocin hormone to begin causing contractions. If the contractions are not strong or frequent enough, Synthetic Oxytocin is often used to chemically induce childbirth. In fact, Kurth noted that the drug is used in more than 50 percent of all labors, including elective labors and deliveries across the United States.

After several years of hearing stories of mothers being given Synthetic Oxytocin during childbirth, and seeing many of those children go on to be diagnosed with ADHD, she decided to study this trend more closely to find out if there was any correlation. Kurth made this effort the dissertation topic for her Ph.D. in Psychology at NCU.

“We found that over 67 percent of the children with an ADHD diagnosis had been perinatally exposed to synthetic oxytocin at the time of their birth; so there was a significant correlation.”

In 2011, Dr. Kurth and Dr. Robert Haussmann (now Dean of NCU’s School of Psychology) published their research article on this topic in the Journal of Attention Disorders. The study, titled “Perinatal Pitocin as an Early ADHD Biomarker: Neurodevelopmental Risk?” looked at a sample of 172 children ages 3 to 25 and compared the medical birth records of children who had a clinically confirmed diagnosis of ADHD against those of children who had no ADHD.

“We found that over 67 percent of the children with an ADHD diagnosis had been perinatally exposed to Synthetic Oxytocin at the time of their birth; so there was a significant correlation,” she explained. “Nearly 70 percent of the children in our sample had this drug during childbirth!”

Since the study was published in 2011, Dr. Kurth has presented at national and international conferences on this topic.

“Our research has been well received, but we’ve encountered some skepticism. So what I began to do a year and a half ago was look at assembling a team of researchers to help me look at this through the lens of an animal model. Any time you have a question about a medication and whether it’s a risk or a benefit, you want to examine it through an animal model.”

Dr. Kurth assembled a team of well-respected researchers with expertise in animal research from the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine. They were excited when she approached them about participating in the study and immediately arranged a faculty appointment for her as a collaborative researcher. Dr. Kurth now holds a faculty appointment as Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine.

Dr. Kurth’s research team aims to expand their study and secure additional funding so they can better understand how this commonly used labor and delivery medication may interact with other factors that are present during normal and/or complicated childbirth, such as maternal stress. They eventually want to research whether this exposure may have some bearing on other neurodevelopmental outcomes such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Contributions to support their research can be made through The CU Foundation or online at www.cufund.org/generationadhd. Dr. Kurth may be contacted at lisa.kurth@ucdenver.edu for more information.