The use of drugs to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorders among American children and adults is growing, with over 3 million Americans currently managing symptoms by taking stimulants that target the neurochemical dopamine. Effective nondrug methods are needed to help young adults with ADHD. In addition, healthy young people ought to have ways to improve attention without using performance-enhancing drugs.

Studies have confirmed that the mind-body practice of tai chi produces a state of relaxed attention, in addition to improving balance, muscle endurance, cognitive function and overall quality of life. Most studies, however, have focused on the effects of tai chi practice on older adults.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, conducted a nonrandomized, controlled study to see whether tai chi practice could provide benefits for young adults. Seventy- two college students, aged 18-34, participated in the 15-week study. ADHD symptoms and cognitive functions were tested at three points: beginning, middle and end. Twenty-eight students took an introductory tai chi course and trained on average 101 minutes per week; 44 students served as a control group.

Data analysis showed a 10% reduction in inattention among the tai chi group relative to the control group. This improvement correlated with reductions in reaction time variability, which means that those who experienced gains in attention were also able to process information more consistently.

Because attention improved, lead study author Alexander K. Converse, PhD, associate scientist at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, in the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted that tai chi training may help young adults with mental focus and showed potential as an effective therapy for adolescents and young adults with ADHD. He encouraged IDEA members who offer tai chi to emphasize the mental training aspects of the discipline.

“This was a small nonrandomized study, so it is not conclusive. However, it is encouraging,” said Converse. “Tai chi is a relatively safe, simple and easy practice that may benefit young adults physically, mentally and emotionally.” More research will be needed.

The study appeared in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (2014; doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00013).