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Badly Behaved Tonsils

Researchers have discovered an apparent link between enlarged tonsils and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).


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It may have been the Victorian-era physician William Osler who first proposed a link between childhood naughtiness and tonsils, those peculiar, nonessential flaps of lymphatic tissue in the throat. "Chronic enlargement of the tissues of the tonsillar ring," he wrote in 1916, can influence a child's mental development "in an extraordinary way."

The better part of a century later, modern science is finally giving Osler some support. A group of researchers led by Ronald Chervin of the University of Michigan have discovered an apparent link between enlarged tonsils—which are known to have an impact on sleep quality—and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In a study of 78 children whose doctors had recommended tonsillectomies to treat sleep-disordered breathing and 27 who were scheduled for other kinds of surgery, Chervin's group found that not only did the tonsil kids have a higher incidence of ADHD than the control group but that a year after the surgery their behavior and concentration had significantly improved. "The idea that sleep-disordered breathing is causing inattention or hyperactivity or ADHD has not yet been proved," Chervin says, "but this study takes us a significant step forward toward making that assertion."

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