KIDS
October 3, 2014

The Brain Networks Behind Attention Deficits

The connections among brain networks in people with ADHD are immature. Can they be helped to develop normally?

Connectomics sounds a little like a tournament involving Legos, but it’s actually an exciting field of study that looks at the communications patterns within our brains.

In addition to many well-recognized regions such as the amygdala, hippocampus, cerebellum and others, our brains have several large-scale networks connected by thousands of nodes.

Immature brain connectivity patterns may underlie this most common neuropsychiatric condition of childhood.

These networks are specialized for different types of reasoning and behavior and require fine-tuned communication systems within and between them in order for us to function optimally. They are called intrinsic connectivity networks (ICN).

ICNs develop and mature throughout childhood and early adulthood and they are responsible for such crucial mental functions as attention, planning, and organization.

In people with the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD, the maturation of these networks appears to be delayed, suggesting to researchers that immature brain connectivity patterns may underlie this most common neuropsychiatric condition of childhood. The symptoms of ADHD often persist into adolescence and adulthood.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity to a degree that is inappropriate for the person’s age. ADHD makes it difficult for children to function at home and school, as well as in the work place and social settings. It is treated with behavioral therapies and stimulant medications.

A recent study shed some light on the potential role for ICNs in the disorder.

The researchers used specialized brain scans of 275 children with and nearly 500 children without symptoms of ADHD. They measured and mapped the interconnectivity between ICNs. Using advanced technology of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they could watch different brain networks involved in certain types of functions “talk” to each other.

There were lags in the connectivity of certain networks critical to attention and impulse control found in the brains of children and teens with ADHD. This immaturity of communication and connection may explain why some children grow out of ADHD and others do not. It may reflect that some brains eventually achieve mature connection systems while others never do.

The findings are consistent with previous brain research into the underlying causes of ADHD, the researchers note.

More research is needed, but the information yielded by connectomics may eventually help establish the diagnosis of ADHD. This approach and the technology associated with it might one day allow doctors to measure and monitor a child's response to treatment and determine which approaches are most effective and how they actually work.

The researchers also believe that connectomics could help scientists investigate other disorders such as autism and schizophrenia that may result from abnormal or immature patterns of brain connectivity.

Currently, there is no specific blood test or imaging study that is used to diagnose ADHD. It is arrived at after an extensive series of neuropsychiatric and medical assessments along with observations from patients, their teachers, and their parents.

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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