Page last updated at 11:28 GMT, Thursday, 4 February 2010

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder link to genius

Kurt Cobain
Cobain: 'Amazing ability'

Attention-deficit disorders may be the spark behind creative geniuses such as Byron, Picasso and even Kurt Cobain, claims a psychiatrist.

Professor Michael Fitzgerald believes people with ADHD have the ability to "hyper-focus" on things of interest.

The Trinity College Dublin academic said lives of high achievers such as Jules Verne and Mark Twain seemed to suggest the disorder.

However, a psychologist said only mild ADHD could possibly offer a benefit.

ADHD is generally regarded as a disadvantage in life, with its characteristic traits of inattentiveness leading to problems at school and home.

However, Professor Fitzgerald told the annual meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatry's Faculty of Academic Psychiatry that it could actually prove an advantage.

Clearly ADHD is not a guarantee of genius, but the focused work-rate that it produces may enable creative genius to flourish
Professor Michael Fitzgerald, Trinity College Dublin

He claimed that it was possible to identify ADHD traits in a list of historical figures, also including Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Edison, Oscar Wilde, James Dean, Clark Gable and even Che Guevara.

"The same genes that are involved in ADHD can also be associated with risk-taking behaviour.

"While these urges can be problematic or even self-destructive - occasionally leading people into delinquency, addiction, or crime, they can also lead to earth-shattering breakthroughs in the fields of the arts, science, and exploration."

He said that Kurt Cobain, the former Nirvana songwriter, had an "amazing ability" to focus on writing music.

"People with ADHD have symptoms of inattentiveness, but they often also have a capacity to hyper-focus on a narrow area that is of particular interest to them.

"Clearly ADHD is not a guarantee of genius, but the focused work-rate that it produces may enable creative genius to flourish."

'Reckless character'

While there are potential pitfalls of diagnosis by historical evidence, Professor Fitzgerald, pointed to clues such as Lord Byron's "turbulent life", with evidence that he got into trouble at school, and criminal behaviour as an adult.

Sir Walter Raleigh was a "reckless character", but this, and his "insatiable quest for new stimulation" had made him into a famous soldier, adventurer and explorer, said Professor Fitzgerald.

This is not the first time that the academic has turned to the history books for examples of famous figures who may have been shaped by psychiatric disorders.

He suggested in a 2004 book that Mozart, George Orwell and Andy Warhol all fitted established criteria for a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder.

Professor Barbara Sahakian, a clinical psychologist at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, said that it would be difficult to make a positive diagnosis of ADHD unless written documentation was very detailed.

"You would need a diary which basically answered all the questions I'd need to ask if the person was in front of me in the consulting room."

She said that while mild ADHD traits could possibly be an advantage, more severe versions of the disorder could be far too debilitating for the individual.

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