Melissa Martinez-Carrasco struggled for years with her son’s ADHD.

“I was desperate,” she said. “I wanted to try something that was already up our alley as far as a natural remedy.”

She was fortunate to find a website about clinical trials in San Antonio, and found one with UT Medicine that was going to study the relationship between ADHD and food.

She enrolled her 11-year-old son Gian Carlo last November. She said he went from telling her, “There’s something wrong,” to "I feel good.”

Dr. Steven Pliszka, UT Medicine psychiatrist, is heading up the study.

Participants -- all 9 to 12 years old -- are put on a six-week diet that cuts out red meat, certain food additives and gluten.

At the end of the six weeks, the kids get randomized to either have snacks that are consistent with the diet, or snacks that are not consistent with the diet in a double-blind fashion. This allow researchers to see if re-introducing the forbidden foods has any effect.

The connection between diet and ADHD focuses on the ventral striatum region of the brain, which is involved in the pleasure and reward response. It’s also connected to impulsive actions.

“One theory of ADHD is that (the) reward center of the brain is dysfunctional,” said Pliszka, “so it’s conceivable that changing diet sort of alters the dynamics of that particular area of the brain, and leads to improvement.”

The diet is heavy on turkey, lamb and green vegetables. Pliszka said most kids in the study have tolerated it quite well.

Such was the case for Gian Carlo, said Martinez-Carrasco, who she said has found a new fondness for greens like kale and lettuce.

She said he calls it "rabbit food," since it’s the same thing the family pet rabbit eats.

“Sometimes he’ll be feeding the rabbit and eating half his food,” said Martinez-Carrasco. “He likes it.”

Gian Carlo himself said he likes the diet, and he knows the benefits.

“It helped my body with acid reflux,” he said.

He said he has more focus in school. He plays soccer now, and plays the cello in the school orchestra.

The clinical trial will go on through the end of 2014. Regardless of the outcome on the connection between ADHD and diet, Pliszka said the results are important.

“If we find out that it’s not effective,” said Pliszka, “that’s also an important advance, because then we can lay that aside and parents don’t have to worry about whether they are needing to put a child on a diet or not.”

The trial is funded with a $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. If preliminary results from this are promising, the NIMH will give UT Medicine another three years of funding for a study comparing the diet to the medication, and also to look at whether combining diet with medications gives a better response.

People interested in learning more about this particular study can call 210-567-0136. You can also find a list of this and other clinical studies at the UT Health Science Center's website.