ADHD & Brain Differences

Question

What do we know about how the brain of a child with ADHD differs from that of a child without the condition? 

 Tuck
Round Rock, TX


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Gwen Lopez-Cohen, MD

Dr. Lopez-Cohen, trained in all aspects of psychiatry, serves as an Assistant Clinical Professor at the Yale Child Study Center and has a full-time clinical practice in Westport, CT.

Recent studies do show clear differences in the brain between kids with ADHD and kids with typical development. The field of neuro-imaging is exploding with a high volume of recent studies evaluating both structural and functional differences in individuals with ADHD compared with the general population. The hope is that findings from these studies will assist with making accurate diagnoses and improve treatments for those with ADHD.

Understanding the Differences

Current research has found differences in both brain structure and function in individuals with ADHD. There has not yet been enough comprehensive research to characterize an “ADHD brain profile,” but many of the studies are helping scientists to narrow down specific brain features in ADHD. For example, some of the recent research has found that children with ADHD experience a time delay in the sequence of normal brain maturation. Children with ADHD have brains that are maturing at a slower rate relative to their age.

Another recent study looking at white matter changes in children with ADHD vs. children without ADHD found sex-specific differences that suggest potentially different mechanisms for ADHD in boys and girls. Boys were more likely to have changes in the motor and premotor cortical structures and function. Girls were found to have changes in regions of the brain that regulate higher order thinking or “top down” functions.

Future Promise

In order for research to become incorporated into established diagnosis and treatment planning, the findings must be validated with a large sample size and replicated by more than one research team. We can be hopeful that in our lifetime we will find brain structure and function patterns that can assist with confirming a diagnosis of ADHD. Currently ADHD is a clinical diagnosis based on the presence of symptoms that cause impairment and occur in more than one setting. As science advances we may have a scan that can diagnose ADHD with greater reliability.

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